Genre: Gen, pre-series and post-series (discounting 6x21/22), drama/angst/hurt/comfort
Characters: Dean, Sam, peripheral OFCs, peripheral John; Lisa, very peripheral Meg
Word count: 27600
Warnings: The exchange of many soulful looks. But no, really. Possibly triggering material: suicidal ideation
Summary: In 1996, you realized one thing: you're either a hunter or you're not; some bridges can only be crossed once. Fast forward to 2021. What happens when that frontier starts closing?
Notes: For spn_j2_bigbang. Art by the amazing barbara_ger!
Ambiance: "Boy with a Coin" and "White Tooth Man" by Iron & Wine.
Four o'clock was leaking into his clothes.
He knew Sam could feel it, too. Clammy sweat brushed up against his arm as Sam edged forward, and Sam's tennis shoes made sounds like he was walking on tacky gum.
"Thought Dad said it was supposed to be cool here," Dean said as he pushed Sam back. Edged him backward, making tacky gum noises all the while, until Sam's shadow melted below the outline of the Suburban. “After Arizona, he promised San Diego would be--”
"I think he meant in the normal places," Sam hissed, "not here here."
Brick four-story, gray asphalt. Some glass, dull in the shadow of the vehicle. Even the grass, wan and browning, slicked the cuffs of their jeans with the humid beads that sweated out of the leaves. Dean pulled at a thin plastic tube he'd wrapped around his waist in place of a belt. Just a tease at first, 'til it loosed up; then he whipped it out like a long, clear snake. Sam waited. He drummed his knees against his two-gallon can like a soccer ball; he was a regular one-man band, what with the beat, the scrick scrick squelch of his tennis shoes, and the whining.
Dean thought, Vocals could use a little work, dude but said, "Dad said I could drive her if I could keep her running. So I'm gonna keep her running." Simple as swimming. "Coast clear?"
Sam mimed a restive 'yes.' Maybe a 'yes, but you're a jerk and I hate you.' But it's four o'clock in a crumbling backlot. City's dead.
"This isn't the first time we've done this."
Sam didn't reply.
Dean flipped the fuel door open, grease grinding into his fingers as he unscrewed the cap, had the tube snaking into the tank in seconds. Sam joined in then, jumped to unwind the tube from Dean's leg, tried to blow off as much of the dust and gravel sand from the lip as he could. Not that it mattered--Dean smeared the tube grease-black when he took it, made a disgusted face before kissing plastic. He blew.
Shoved it further.
Blew again. Bubbles, like dinosaur tar. You couldn't hear them, really, but the humming vibration was there. He coughed. "Sammy--"
Sam waved him off. He was already standing, back flat against the building, neck craned to peer around the corner. Ever vigilant Sammy.
Time to get to work. Dean sucked as hard as he could. He could feel resistance on the other end, but not much else. Take a breath and it's all over. Nothing. Nothing.
The lot was silent, except for Sam's shoes. Like sucking on the damn tube was creating a vacuum in space. (Still nothing. Nothing. An eternity in five seconds.)
Then: "Uh, Dean?" The jangle of dog tags. Dad? Skittering gravel. It didn't sound like Dad, not really--not at all--but it's the only thing Dean has room to think, outside of keep sucking, and it takes him a split second to shuck the thought and jump to the alternative. Panic. “Dean!”
Sam jumped away from the brick wall, followed by an explosion of black. Loud black. It registered as 'fuck' before anything else. 'Fuck' that broke into reciprocal sputtering panic, as the gas leapt up the tube and into Dean's mouth, unmonitored. Gas spilled onto his shirt when he dropped the tube, spilled into his hands, his jeans--everywhere--until the tube hit the ground, curled like a snake, and started dribbling into the gravel.
Loud black slammed into Dean's chest, knocking him back so hard his head bounced against the gravel (and the scrap, and the glass, fuck). Dead weight pawing at his chest, parading up his ribcage. He tasted gasoline.
Big black dog. Loud black was a big black dog. A thousand things flashed through Dean's mind, most of them sigils, calibers, even herbs--all useless. But his first instinct was to kill. Kill the instant he can fucking figure out how not to get tenderized in the process. Dog must've done the same mental number on Sam, because in his peripheral vision Dean saw a switchblade fall tidily from Sam's sleeve to his hand, dull in the shadows like the glass that cracked beneath his feet. Then Dean remembered the tags. "Wait--"
Real dog. It's a real dog. Someone's dog. Tongue lolling out and dripping thick, hot slobber onto his neck. Real dog.
Sam saw, too. He threw Dean the knife anyway, just in case. Dean wasn't sure if it was the actual crushing weight on his chest, or the shame of paranoia, but his exhalation popped and shuddered, and...whatever cooled in the pit of his stomach. It all tasted like gasoline.
Dean tried to breathe in, which only partly worked. Sam had scrambled around to the gas tube and was brandishing it like a fire hose. The gas dribbled out. The dog didn't pay it much mind, but its ears perked at Sam's shaky Go on, git!.
The dog turned. Sam flashed it with a faceful of gasoline and it recoiled, bounded from Dean's chest like it was made of claws and watch springs.
Dean didn't move, just let the clouds slide just let the clouds slide over the cut of the tall brick building above him. Domestic dogs! He rolled onto his hands and knees, curled against the front tire of the Suburban, his back to Sam.
"Dean, are you okay? You're bleeding. Are you okay?"
Dean's fingers came away from the back of his head red and sticky. Huh. He'd forgotten about that. "Yeah, I'm fine." It was clotting already, more of a mess that was going to be hell to explain than anything else. The claw marks on his chest were superficial beneath his layers of clothing, though the heat made the ripped skin bloat and sting. He tried to spit out the taste of gasoline.
"We should get out of here." Which was a given, but Sam meant now. As in, immediately, this very second, five minutes ago if possible. Sam came around to Dean's front and peered over the hood of the Suburban. He had that antsy look of rule-abiding concern on his face.
"Good plan." But he wasn't moving fast enough, apparently, because Sam had jumped up, had the drum capped and the tube, gas still flicking out the end, pulled out of the gas tank and coiled neatly around his hand before Dean had even turned around.
Dean shut the fuel door. "I can carry that."
Sam adjusted his grip on the container. "No." He broke into a shambling jog, drum banging against his thigh with every other step. After he flashed one last look at the drained Suburban, wet gravel dark in its shadow, Dean followed.
It was a block, block and a half of narrow side streets to the Impala. They jumped in, gas can at Sam's feet.
"We'll deal with that later."
Dean pressed his forehead to the steering wheel and drew in a series of measured breaths. The taste of gasoline was still thick in his mouth, the smell of it saturating his skin and clothes. He felt a little like being sick.
"Are you okay?" Sam asked again.
"Don't light any matches," said Dean. "This is a strictly non-smoking ride."
It took Sam all of twenty minutes to surface out of deep brotherly (unwanted) concern. Instead, he welcomed the slippery medium between keeping tabs on Dean’s well-being while really kind of wanting to murder his idiot of a brother himself.
“We need to find Dad. He’ll tell us what he needs us to do.”
See, this was the kind of thing that really irked Sam. Sam tried not to gag on the smell of gasoline bleeding into the air in the car. “If he needed us to do anything, he wouldn’t have left us in Arizona.” He wouldn’t have zipped off in a respectfully borrowed Toyota and put a handful of days and hundreds of miles between them. After Arizona--boiling days filled with orders, training, vigilance, orders, orders, and more orders--Sam didn't see why a speedy reunion was topping Dean's wish list. This wasn’t even a difference in opinion, or affection--Dean’s wants were actual logical fallacies at this point.
“He trusts us to do it on our own,” Dean said, as though that explained everything.
“He left us to clean up his mess!” How trust factored into leaving your sons with a pile of dead dogs, a shovel and a stretch of bushy desert, Sam was pretty sure he’d never understand, even if one day someone bothered to explain.
But Dean slammed his palms against the steering wheel, floored the gas. Then, low and deadly quiet--
“He left us there to finish the job.” And that was that.
Sam sulked against the passenger window. Let Dean believe whatever he wanted. Sam wasn’t going to pick up the pieces.
Their new haste took them fifteen feet and about fifteen inches from the back bumper of a much larger vehicle. Red light. So they continued, stop go stop go, for some eternal stretch of time Sam tried to measure by the buildings and blocks and building blocks they passed. Vertical dips, raw street, and light after corner after light. The odometer crept forward; Sam wet his lips sleepily, lulled by the rocking jerk of traffic, and the gasoline needle drooped and flagged, and with it, so did Dean.
“I hate cities.” They rattled over another jagged patch of street before sliding to a halt, again too close to the car in front of them. Three inches.
Dean gulped in air, loud enough that it snapped Sam out of his baked torpor. Sam’s nostrils flared, dry and brittle with the heat, mucked up with exhaust and gasoline and the thick stench of wet concrete; they rolled past grocers and body shops and thrift stores and wedding boutiques and drug stores and bail bond buildings, all pouring water on the cement, trying unsuccessfully to keep the dust down.
“You’re going to crash,” Sam pointed out, when Dean braked so close to the leading car even whispers couldn’t pass between them.
“I’ll show you crashing.” At that, Dean accelerated wildly backwards, just shy of the terrified Lotus Esprit behind them, crossed double yellow, and all but threw them across oncoming traffic towards the gas station on the corner.
“Dean!” Sam squealed, hitting a pitch he didn’t think he’d been able to reach since he was seven. He grabbed frantically at the keys--what he would do, he didn’t know; wrench them from the ignition?--but Dean smacked his hand away. Eased against the curb and parked.
Sam was most of the way through an invective against Dean ever driving them again by the time Dean got the door open and spilled out of the front seat. “I need some air.”
Sam watched Dean disappear into the gas station, ghost-like. He managed a few uncomfortable minutes in the Impala, legs crossed over their contraband-filled tin (why’d Dean have to pick a gas station of all places?), before he leapt out, a popcorn kernel in oil, and scampered to the pay phone just outside the station.
Sam dialed Dad’s Motorola on a whim and, to his astonishment, found himself actually talking to Dad in the space of a minute. Or being talked at by Dad. There was a woman named Veronica; with a kid about Dean’s age. An apartment that should be easy to locate provided all the signs were there. Place at the end of the block. A case. And he’d meet them at seven. He ignored Sam’s interrogation, who what when where why.
“You make it alright?”
“What’s that supposed to mean.”
“Maybe you’ll find out at seven, Dad.” Sam hung up.
Dean returned momentarily, jackets in hand, white t-shirt bare to the world. It wasn’t strictly white, never had been, but now Sam could see streaked muddy paw prints, easily discernible if you knew what you were supposed to be looking for. Dean wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, lips curling in distaste. He looked flushed, wavering mirage-like and overtired. Pressed a hand to his abdomen, across invisible damage.
As they returned to the traffic gridlock--slower now, resignedly sluggish--Sam relayed Dad’s less than exuberant welcome. Veronica. Apartment. Seven o’clock.
“That’s it?” Dean said, when Sam had finished. “I mean. ‘If all the signs are there’--what is that even supposed to mean? And who the hell is Veronica? ‘Friend of Mom’s’, really?”
“No, he also said he had a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates waiting for us when we got there because, god, he missed us so much. C’mon, Dean.” Sam sulked against the passenger window.
“You’re kind of a bitch in your old age, Sammy.”
“And you’re a jerk.”
Dean changed tunes. “Who the hell is Veronica?”
Sam sighed, exasperation running through him like the heat and hunger. “How ‘bout you ask Dad, huh? You never ask Dad. If you’re so curious, how come you never bug Dad about it, huh?”
“Did he answer?”
They lapsed into silence as they drove, conversation supplanted by brick and tall concrete and colorful billboards promising everything and more. Then, at yet another stoplight, traffic like a funeral procession in the tranquilizing heat, Dean started in again.
“But I mean--you don't think that's kind of...weird? That Veronica woman, and--'friend of Mom's,' really? Like hell Mom was friends with any chicks living in California. And like hell any of 'em would be all buddy-buddy with dad."
"Well, why not? I mean, he was her hus--"
"Trust me, that's really not how that worked."
Sam cut off his next comment, and raked his lower lip with his teeth. He didn't have anything to say to that.
"C'mon, let's just check out the place. It's probably pretty ace. 'If all the signs are there.' We are living West Side Story, dude."
"That took place in New York."
"We are way the hell more west than New York could ever dream of being."
As it turned out, all the signs really weren't quite there. But it was easy enough to find the building, even in the nest of identical concrete high-rises. The apartment itself was a different story, eight floors up and about a million snaking corridors away.
"Who the hell numbers things out of order, anyway?" Dean panted. He adjusted the green duffel on his shoulder. The weapons inside hadn't been packed correctly, and handles and barrels and god knew what else were biting into his spine. He leaned back against the wall. It was unpleasantly warm, far from the cool stone he'd hoped for.
"You're probably gonna tell me to fuck off for asking, but--are you--"
Dean groaned. "For the last time, yes."
"You look like you're going to throw up."
Dean rolled his eyes. "Yeah, and I feel like it, too. Let's just find the apartment."
Something flickered in Sam's expression. "I can carry--"
"Let's just find the apartment."
It was around the next corner, down a connecting hallway.
Sam tried the doorknob. When it didn’t budge, Sam swore up and down Dad hadn’t said what to do about keys. Luckily, it didn't seem like this building was going to have any sort of fancy electronic alarm system rigged up to its apartments, so they were good on that one.
"Gimme the thing," Sam said absently, examining the lock like he could see through the brassy exterior and work out the insides beforehand.
Balancing the duffel between the wall and his body, Dean leaned into it and worked the lockpick out of his back pocket. "Time ya," he said.
Sam rolled his eyes. "Right." And he went to work. Sam got the lock-and-bolt combo down to under five, which in a childhood of waiting, and waiting more, was lightning. But Dean had been nauseous beforehand, ever since their little run-in with the dog from hell, and the feeling sure as hell hadn't improved, even after their little QueasyMart pit stop. Watching the door finally creak inward, the relatively cool darkness of the interior was a welcome sight.
Dean pushed past Sam, who was still kind of beaming at the doorknob, and gave the living room a cursory once-over. There weren’t any windows--no grand view of the city to make up for the eight flights of stairs--and it was dark as hell inside. But Dad would like it like that. If they were on a case, then they were in for days upon weeks upon months of salt, sigils, the whole shebang. No windows meant one less weakness.
"We should go to prison."
Sam’s forehead wrinkled, and he looked up at him like he was going to say something.
“No windows,” Dean explained blithely. “You know.”
Sam gave him a look that said no, he didn’t know, but he folded his words back into his cheeks, lips pursed. He blew out an exasperated sigh instead.
Dean continued his examination: a small kitchen, with a fridge and a sink and a counter top that overlooked the living room like a wet bar. Hallway leading down to what was probably the bathroom and bedroom. Lumpy carpet with streaked stains across it, dull and grey like they'd been scrubbed at by some hapless cleaner hoping to trade effort for success. Dean sneezed, dust billowing up with each footstep. Yeah, didn’t work like that.
"Home sweet home," Dean pronounced.
Sam poked his head in, though he didn’t seem that thrilled by what he saw. "Should we go down and get the sleeping bags?"
Probably should have just brought them up with the rest of the stuff. The idea of having to trek all the way back to the car wasn't exactly the most exciting prospect. Dean peered into the kitchen. Dust curled around the feet of all the counters, but it wasn't so bad.
Dean dropped the green duffel under the bar counter and slid down the wall. He sat against it, back flat, and tried not to think about throwing up again. It really wasn’t that bad; he’d probably be fine in a few hours, but he hated the feeling like no other. Even then, it wasn’t like Caleb hadn't warned him against the possibility of fucking up the siphoning: Don't throw up, kid. You don't want to bring all that shit up. And you definitely don't want it in your lungs.
Probably a little late for that. Dean felt what must be gas and gasoline bubble up in his throat, pop as it reached his mouth. He breathed out.
Well. At least they'd gotten some gas. Not a lot, since they'd wasted most of it on the ground, and on that dog, but it was a start. It was probably better this way. Then Dad wouldn't think to ask where they'd suddenly gotten a full tank from. Dean wasn't sure why he felt like Dad would be so against the idea of his boys stealing. It's not like he didn’t have them do ten million other illegal things. Not like like he wasn't running half the credit card scams in the country, on top of twelve other different types of identity fraud, libel, and whatever the hell else. But Dean just got the impression that Dad wouldn't want him to be stealing shit out of other people's cars. Hypocrite.
"I can go down and get them." Sam slid down the wall beside the door on the opposite side of the room. It was dark inside, like Dean had expected, the only light coming through the uneven sliver at the base of the front door. It had been hotter than hell in that parking lot, but Dad was right. It was pretty cool in San Diego. Though maybe that had more to do with spending half the year in southern Texas and Arizona just before. Dean was pretty sure the Sahara would feel pretty damn cool after running around Texas all August.
"I said I could go down and get them. The sleeping bags."
"Leave 'em. We don't know what Dad's gonna want to do tonight, anyway. Maybe he'll want an early start."
"Then we should sleep now."
Dean snorted. "Uh huh. Have you ever tried sleeping at five in the afternoon? It doesn't work that way."
Sam clearly disagreed. "Well, do you want to lie down?"
Dean considered this. "No, not really." And he really didn't. He just wanted to get the fuck over it, stop belching gas, and pretend it all hadn't happened. But he should probably try to get cleaned up anyway. The back of his head was starting to itch, his hair sticky with congealed blood and dirt and god knew what else.
"Do we have any clean clothes?"
"I don't think so. I'm pretty sure we skipped the laundromat when we were in Julian."
Well, that's fantastic. Whatever. "I'm gonna go test out the shower. See if we've got running water in here or not. Try to figure out what to do about--yeah." He wiped his face again, this time with the palms of his hands. Bad idea. The grease was so thick on his fingers he could almost feel the weight.
"Gasoline, that's--is that poisonous? That's poisonous, right?" Sam asked, finally.
Dean shrugged. "Not gonna be making mixed drinks out of it any time soon. Caleb's gonna get a riot out of this one he ever finds out, though."
"Caleb gets a riot out of hit and runs," Sam deadpanned.
Dean shrugged again, then got up. "Face it, Sam. I don't care what the hell the PETA says. That pig--javelina--thing-- deserved it."
Sam waited until he heard the water running before he left the apartment. As long as Dean wasn’t draped over their new toilet, puking his guts out, Sam had done his part. He snaked the keys to the Impala from Dean's pile of clothes crumpled outside the bathroom door--everything smelled like gasoline--and tried to navigate his way back to ground floor and around to the alley where they'd left the car.
The return trip was unexpectedly quicker than their first. Sam dragged assorted trash bags dragged from the backseat and threw them into the Dumpster at the side of the building. The sleeping bags and dirty laundry, he piled up strategically so he could take it all in one trip. Even so, by the time he'd reached the apartment, he couldn't feel his fingertips anymore. He was pretty sure they'd just been cut off by the sheer weight and awkward bulk of all his bags.
Sam wasn't even really sure why they were bringing everything up. Dad hadn't given them any indication of how long they'd be staying. The apartment outperformed the Winchester standard, though it wasn't much bigger than their motel rooms. So this must be a pretty big case. Either that or--no, that couldn't possibly be it. It had to be a pretty big case. And it wasn't like they were putting down a mortgage, didn't even seem like they were going to be paying rent. At least, not in the normal sense. Sam tried not to think about that kind of thing too hard--not when Dad wasn't around to wear down to one word factoids and maybe-answers.
By the time Sam kicked the door shut behind him, dropping everything in his arms so that it cascaded all around the living room like presents falling from Santa's (run-down, illegally parked) sleigh, Dean was out of the shower, more or less. He'd apparently discovered too late they didn't actually own any towels. Evidently he'd found some way to dry off, because he came back down the hallway, squirming in now-damp jeans, shirtless.
"Where the hell are we even supposed to find towels," Dean muttered. He tried to pull his jeans back up past his hips. "See, this is why the hotel dig is so much better. Free towels, maid service, those little soaps and shampoo bottles. Love those."
Washed up, Dean didn't look much better than he had before, though he was less sweaty, had slightly less blood in his hair. The grease was still there, muted but still shiny across his face and hands. No soap either, apparently. His chest was a budding purple with wide, puffy scratches where the dog had raked him, but nothing that broke the skin. They'd been pretty lucky. They hadn't killed anyone's pet--which was always a plus--and Sam's read enough newspapers to know that normal or no, plenty of people have been mauled by a plain old dog and gotten off far worse than anything their family's ever been put through fighting monsters.
"Are you hungry?" Sam asked. Not that they had anything to eat. They'd have to go out. And if they went out, they'd miss Dad. Sam was already working out this logic in his head when Dean said No.
Which was too obvious a lie to even bother countering. But Sam knew as well as Dean did that until Dad walked through that door, they weren't going anywhere.
Sam knew that Dean preferred when Dad was there. When they were all there. Sam wasn't entirely sure why, since it seemed like most of that time, Dean was either receiving orders or being reprimanded for not following them. Dad left, and it was all freedom. (It wasn't. It would never be. But it was better than--well.)
That February in Arizona, they'd all tracked down a pack of Black Dogs together. Three full months, straight into April. Sam had been the one to kill them in the end, and Dad was proud. Dean was sore, jealous even, but also proud. Sam had just said, "Can we go home now?"
Bad words and worse wording.
"This place has a phone," Dean said. He was inspecting the kitchen more closely, opening all the drawers and cupboards. The phone wasn't in either of these, but it was hidden around the corner, in a claustrophobic alcove that held an empty pantry and a brown plastic garbage can, no liner. "Think it's hooked up?"
Dean picked it up and held it to his ear. Dial tone. "We're moving up in the world, Sammy." He smirked, and adjusted his pants again. "You gonna take one?"
It took Sam a moment to realize Dean was talking about a shower. He looked at his watch. 6:45. He scratched his head. His hair felt heat-limp and grainy. "Dad's probably gonna be here soon," he said.
Dean knocked on the wall adjoining the kitchen and the hallway. What he thought he was listening for, Sam didn't know. "Yeah, probably." He didn't make any move to dress further, though.
They both knew Dad wasn't coming any time soon. It was like he couldn't break tradition. Seven o'clock meant ten if it didn't mean next week.
"So you really don't think there's anything going on between--" Dean started, peering into the oven and very pointedly not looking at Sam.
"What?" Sam said. That was kind of out of the blue. "What, Dad and that woman? Veronica?"
Dean shrugged. "No, the other woman. Christ, Sam."
"Well, I don't know, Dean. He said it was a case. And if she was a friend of Mom's, maybe she knew about Dad, about hunting. Afterward."
Dean kicked at the cupboards with his bare feet. Wet and still clammy, the dust hiding underneath clung to his toes, turned a moppish shade of wilted gray, leaving dark streaks against his skin.
Then the telephone rang. They both jumped, and Sam's heart raced up to panic and back down in the split second it took him to realize what the sound was. Dean looked at Sam, then moved to answer. "'Lo?"
"Is this a Winchester?"
"It depends on who's asking," said Dean. Sam would have to tell him later that saying that made it seem like two things: one, he was some kind of cartoon, and two, it very definitely was a Winchester on the line. Sam got up, jumped over to Dean's shoulder, and they set the receiver between both their ears. It was a girl's voice on the other end.
"My mama said to tell you to come down to the street. The one in front of the building across from that grocery store with the pink roof. My mama and your dad are coming over to pick you up. You're coming over for dinner."
"Okay," Dean said. He mouthed I told you so! and punched Sam in the arm. Unnecessarily, Sam thought.
"Oh and, which one are you? Are you Sam, or--"
"This is Dean."
"Oh, okay. You're in my school. I think I'm supposed to show you around or something. It's not that interesting, though; I dunno what I'm supposed to be showing you or anything."
"Right. Well. I guess we'll see you at dinner."
This time it was Sam's turn to punch his brother. Some phone manners he had. "At least say thanks for the message!" he hissed.
Dean shrugged. Apparently it was that kind of day. The girl on the other end hung up and Dean followed suit. "I told you so," he said again. "Dad is totally banging that chick."
"Right. Because they've had so much time to get to know each other. They just sat in this living room and had tea."
Dean shrugged. “Plenty of room."
"Hey, man, that one was totally on you. You left yourself wide open for that and you know it."
Dean picked up the green duffel and threw it in the closet at the end of the hallway. Already inside was an ancient hose vacuum and a yellowing ironing board. "Guess that's what they mean when they say partially furnished," Dean breathed. It smelled like moth balls. It smelled like an entire nest of breeding moth balls. "Got, you know, all the essentials."
They made it downstairs in pretty good time. Either the shower had helped Dean along a lot or had just given him the chance to hide it better, but he wasn’t looking nearly as sick as before. He hadn't done a particularly good job of washing out his hair in the back, where the dog had jounced him in the parking lot, but if you weren't looking too close, it wasn't so bad. They took the stairs two at a time down all eight floors.
Dad and Veronica weren't downstairs yet. And there wasn't really anywhere good to sit and wait; the curb was gum-encrusted, the gutter choked with classifieds and plastic straws. "You wanna check out what they have over there?" Sam asked, pointing to the store the girl on the phone had described--the one with the pink roof.
"Hell, why not," said Dean. "Figure we're probably going to be MVP here over the next few months. Might as well case the joint."
"You really think we'll be here that long?" said Sam. He wasn't sure if he actually wanted to be here that long, though it was probably too early to tell. It's just that so far their experience hadn't exactly been love at first sight material.
Dean laughed. "I'm telling you, he's banging Veronica. We could be here for the rest of our lives."
"You sound like you're the one doing the... banging," Sam muttered accusatorily. "Seriously, Dean."
"Yup. Dad's banging the chick, we'll move in, and we'll be running away from that black fucking dog for the rest of our lives."
They crossed the street. It was a small store--Denis's, proclaimed the sign. It smelled like bread inside. -Warm, in a sun-baked, stuffy kind of way. You could see the condensation precipitating on the insides of the display windows. Giant cookies, fifty cents. Bread loaves stacked in threes, one dollar. There were sandwich rolls and doughnuts, cookies--even cheesecakes. There was a sign for meat cuts behind the cash register--vacant--and shelf upon shelf of every chip or snack you could imagine. There were jars of things, the names of which Sam was pretty sure he couldn't pronounce right, and handwritten signs pricing everything out. NO CREDIT CARD said one of the signs at the front, in bold blue marker. NO was underlined in red. CASH AND FOOD STAMP ONLY.
"Well, that could be a problem," Dean whispered. "We're gonna have to score some actual cash somewhere." Which wasn't the problem, exactly. Dean had gotten pretty good at darts while they were in Arizona, once he figured out it was a lot easier to school passing strangers at darts than it was to continuously hustle the same one pool table, or the same one game of poker every week. All about the timing, Dean had claimed, the last time he'd come home less than pristine. And the lighting.
No one had yet bothered to meet them at the front desk, though Sam could hear the radio going and conversation in the back room. A woman was yelling at someone named Alonso. Alonso either wasn't saying anything in retaliation, or the woman was on the phone. Dean drummed his fingers on the front desk, the hard plastic case showing off still more breads and cookies. When still no one came, he moved towards the door, where there was a display of candies and energy bars. Some of it was slipped into pockets, tucked between waistbands. A small pack of mints somehow ended up under Dean's tongue.
Sam watched the counter.
Dean was reaching for the screen door handle when the yelling stopped and a woman finally came out to greet them. Sam wondered if she was Denis. Dean gave her a close-lipped smile and something that was a cross between a wave and a salute, and turned to leave. Sam waved, too, and skittered out of the store behind him.
Once outside and safely across the street, Dean spit out the container of mints and took about half the pack in one gulp. "What's taking them?" he said absently, mouth full. He leaned against the building--Sam guessed it was their building, at least for now. They didn't say anything more about Denis's.
Dean had finished most of his mints when Dad and Veronica pulled up. The crunching was quieter, at least, and Dean had stopped talking about how these were the kind of mints that made sparks in your mouth when you chewed them in the dark.
"Good, Graciela got a hold of you, then," Veronica said in greeting. She was dark, thickly muscular, and short, seat pushed up to the wheel the way Dad hated. She looked more like a drill sergeant than a mother. She didn’t smile.
"Yup," said Dean, eventually.
“Wow, you’re cool,” Sam muttered as he and Dean scrambled into the backseat. It had a gray fuzzy cover over the seats that reminded Sam unpleasantly of sitting on some kind of blanket made out of stuffed animals. And it had to be a pretty good approximation, since it had been a long time since Sam had ever even seen a stuffed animal.
Sam tried to memorize the road to Veronica's house from the apartment. West a ways, more towards the coast. Up hills. Then all along a plateau neighborhood, flat and full of nondescript project houses. Veronica pulled up in front of a small yellow house with a slatted front and a steel fence that corralled a few large, thorny rosebushes. They were the kind of rose bushes with more thorns than flowers, but they were bulky and green. The grass was thick, yellow, and long.
They walked up to the front door, up a concrete path that had a set of small handprints pressed into it: GC 1983. Sam jumped the one concrete step.
Veronica let the screen door swing out, which gave Sam just enough clearance to avoid being smacked off the front step, and unlocked the door. She called a greeting to Graciela.
Inside, Sam wasn't sure what to think about the house. It was small, but it was full to the brim with photographs and ceramic statues--only some of which looked like they served some sort of occult or protective purpose--embroidered pillows, rag rugs and mismatched furniture. Sam thought about their own empty apartment and it made him feel sort of sad that their idea of unpacking the apartment involved dropping some sleeping bags in the back room, locking guns in the closet, and discovering the telephone. That was home. Actually, it was better than home, because otherwise they were on the road, four steel walls closing in a hot space that left room for nothing but secrets.
Just then, a girl's head popped out from around the corner, flooded Sam out of his own thoughts with her presence. She was short and dark like her mother, but round where her mother was hard. She wore a bright cross around her neck.
"Mama, the beans aren't cooking evenly," she said in greeting.
They all followed Veronica into the too-small kitchen. Sam ended up squeezed up against the girl, having tried hard not to get too close and failing miserably.
"I'm Graciela,” she announced as a matter-of-fact. “Which one are you?"
"I'm Sam," said Sam. And he couldn’t help it; he could taste the trained paranoia on his lips, but he had to ask. "How do you know who we are?"
"My mama told me about you two. She said you were John Winchester's kids."
And who did she say John Winchester was? Sam wanted to ask. But Dad had ears like a wolf's whenever it was least convenient for Sam, so he didn't want to risk it. They had enough ‘Family Discussion’ material to last a lifetime as it was. He was pretty sure the stunt with the car, and the dog, and the visible fallout, hadn’t even had its turn.
Sam heard the jingle of dog tags.
"You've got to be fucking kidding me," Dean breathed. "You've got to be fucking--"
"We don't use that language," said Dad, though Sam wasn’t entirely sure how long that rule had been around. Best guess, about twelve seconds.
Sam followed Dean's line of sight out to another screen door leading to a small patio and grass patch off the kitchen area. Outside, nose to the screen, tongue coating the mesh with a film of saliva, was the black dog. Tall and bulky and slick with a sheen of rainbowy oil was the black dog. Sam struggled against the shudder that threatened to coil down his spine.
"She, uh. She yours?" Dean asked Graciela, edging back out towards the living room, away from the door.
Graciela shook her head. "That's Papi's Dog."
"She got a name?"
"Papi's Dog. That's her name. She's Papi's Dog."
"Right. And uh. I don't suppose she got out earlier today?"
Graciela shrugged as best she could, though with Sam still leaned up against her, her movement was a little truncated. "I don't know what she does. She does whatever she wants. She's not our dog."
"But Papi--he must live here too then, right?"
"My Papi. My dad. And he doesn't live here anymore."
Even Dean knew it was better not to ask. “So, what’s for dinner?” he said instead.
“Humba and lumpia. Leftover tamales from the freezer,” said Graciela.
Dean looked to Sam for translation, and Sam to Dean. Then they shrugged. Better not to ask.
“And you’re sure he didn’t come back?” Dean glanced down at his list. Last name on a sheet of ink smears and torn edges, binding frayed where he’d torn it from Dad’s old journal. “Haven’t seen ‘im since Thursday,” the voice on the other end of the line confirmed dryly. “In 2011. A goddamn decade and you’d think people’d have figured out the fucker bit it. Shit.” Dial tone.
Dean blotted out Roy Spinelli, just above Walt Kroger, Heather Mirabell and Graciela Caceres. His was the last name on a long list of numbers that had coffins on the other side.
Dean kneaded his forehead vigorously, or as much as his shoulder would allow. Chose a damn good time to be acting up again. But maybe he could give Clive Beachamp a try. Guy wasn’t a hunter, but he had a network the size of Sprint on his side. A little toggling and his number popped up, labeled ‘Asshole.’
Dean shifted uncomfortably on the wooden steps to the sound of buttons pressing. Automatic speed dial. Life had to be pretty fucking sad if Clive Beachamp was actually one of his Fast Five or whatever. Sad, but mostly just over for a hell of a lot of better people.
The phone rang and rang and never picked up. The number you have dialed is not available.
Make that Fast Four.
Dean shifted again. He felt like he had splinters up his ass the size of the step they came from. This house had certainly seen better afternoons.
Maybe Arnold Belzer. Belzer was in the know; maybe he’d cut him a deal. Why was it so hard to score? All he needed were some iron rounds. But no sooner had someone picked up--a woman, sultry Carolina accent, decidedly not Belzer--did Sam roll up in a jalopy so nondescript and hybridized with other junked parts, that even Dean couldn’t identify the original make.
“And thank you, ma’am, for your cooperation. We’ll be sure to keep you in mind next time we have any surveys about--youth--soccer,” Dean ad-libbed as Sam approached him, frown first and the rest of him following.
“Telemarketing is a noble profession, Sam,” Dean informed Sam as he blew past Dean and started jangling keys in the rusty lock.
“As long as you have one.”
Sam sounded more morose than usual. Cheap suit. Handful of what looked like a grab bag of resumes, bank statements and red-inked foreclosure notices. “Two weeks, Sammy. Aren’t you proud? At some point they might even start paying me.”
Sam pushed against the door, but it wouldn’t budge. Then he pounded at it. “No,” he grunted. “I’m not”--another pound, but no dice--“proud. You wanna know why, Dean? Because I know”--shoulder check, and again nothing--“you’re capable of staying employed. It’s not rocket science. What I don’t know”--another shoulder check, with increased force. Nothing--“is why you’ve decided not to.” Sam kicked the door, hard, and it finally creaked free of its frame. “Fuck.” Sam wiped at his brow with the sleeve of his suit. “And why are you sitting out here? Couldn’t you have just--picked the lock or something?” he panted.
“‘Cause I knew I’d have to pretend I could do that.” Dean gestured towards Sam and the door, their invisible wrestling ring.
Sam’s expression softened momentarily. “Well, come in.” He offered his hand in aid, which Dean did not take.
Past the impenetrable door, the house had been gutted. Dean whistled. “Jeez, Sam. I saw the yard and thought maybe you’d gone OCD on all Bobby’s junk cars. Didn’t think you’d get rid of his furniture, too.”
“Well, it belongs to the bank now, Dean,” Sam snapped. “I kind of had to. Thanks for the help.”
The kitchen was a mess of brown packing boxes filled with books and loose leaf steno paper. Sam’s papers were perched like a flurry of white angels at the top of one of the stacks. Dean rifled through them--he was right; resume for one Samuel Haldigger, Robert Steven Singer’s bank statements, a whole lot of red--and returned them in a state of disorder.
Dean scooped through his I didn’t I couldn’t I can’ts and bottomed out at, “I’m sorry.”
“Sure you are,” Sam muttered, terse and clipped, head buried in one of the boxes. When Dean didn’t challenge him, he looked up, sank into the box like a deflated balloon. “You didn’t come all this way just to say that. What’s wrong?”
Dean’s laughter was bitter. “Nothin’. Nothing’s wrong. I just need to borrow your car.”
Sam’s turn for laughter. “My car. You gotta be kidding me. What’s wrong with yours?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Dean repeated. “I just-- Where I’m going. I just don’t think she’d make it where I’m going.” It felt like he’d ripped out his stomach with the admission.
Sam remained incredulous. “My car,” he repeated, wide-eyed. “You gotta be kidding me. ‘Where you’re going’, you think that thing’d make it, but not the Impala? Dean, that thing barely makes it to town and back without something falling off it. Where the hell do you think you’re going to go?”
“Peñasquitos. California. Rancho Peñasquitos.” After a moment, words impossibly thick, “And yes. I do.”
The once-over Sam gave him after that made it seem like he’d sobered Sam into scrutiny. Once turned to twice-over. Three times over.
On the fourth, Dean started squirming. “If you’re waiting for the peep show, you’re not gonna get it, kiddo.”
“Have you slept?”
Even if Dean only had three wishes, he’d be calling on his genie now. Barring that, he tried to will Sam to color-blindness, away from the tell-tale bruised-dark, red-rimmedness of his eyes. He snorts. “Of course I have.”
But this was a conversation too well defended on Dean’s end--and he’d defend it to his death if he had to. He’s ready. Sam opted for another point of attack.
“So you need a car. How’d you get all the way out here? Walk? Fly>?”
“Funny. I took a bus. A couple buses.” Dean would use his second wish on a chair. He’d started to feel the strain of hiking all the way out to bumfuck Bobby’s-old-place out on the porch; that feeling was starting to come back full throttle: a decentralized pervasive ache down his back and hips and knee, outright pain when he moved, shifted weight. So maybe he wasn’t ready to fight to the death. But he’d still die trying, goddamn it.
“So hop on something westward and go to California that way,” Sam said, leadingly.
Back door approach. Fuck you, Sam. Dean dropped onto one of the boxes and rubbed his neck. “Because I can’t,” he said to Sam, and hated him.
“You could see a doctor,” Sam suggested.
“Yeah. Yeah, Sam, as fun as that sounds, I’m not going to sit around some podunk ER getting sneezed on just to say, Hey Doc. I’m pretty sure I fucked up everything. I’m pretty sure I’ve fucked everything for good. Do I get my lethal injection now?”
“You could see Lisa. Isn’t she back in school? Physical therapy...”
“Oh hey, you could go back to college, Sam. That sounds like fun,” said Dean, which stripped down meant something like Not on your damn life, Sammy more than anything else. Though, Dean supposed, the question stood.
“You could go,” Sam countered. “It’s in vogue, after all. I hear Ben’s going. Lisa started up.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Really, you should give it a shot.” Sam placed a lid on one of the many boxes of tomes and steno books. “It’d be new for you.” Then he started filling another box, as though that were an answer.
“You should go see Lisa,” Sam says after a while, to cover Dean’s distracted lapse in conversation.
The pain in Dean’s shoulder was almost hell, hedging the nexus between unbearable and annoying in ways that meant it was the only thing Dean could think about. Every neural pathway, tender ending, reflex twinge--it had all rewired, made his shoulder a goddamn rockstar. Dean wondered what he’d ever done to give his shoulder the right to be such a bitch.
He was doing everything he could to keep from grandstanding exquisite discomfort. “What?” he said, to test his voice. “Been seeing Lisa. Been living with her. She’s back with Mark, did you know that?”
“So that’s where you went. Aren’t they--weren’t they div--”
“Separated. Four years. Now they’re back. And don’t act like it’s some big surprise where I was. You wanted it.”
“I said I needed some time alone.”
“You know what you meant.”
“Yeah, I do.” Sam looked at him imploringly, but the argument was over. “Want to help me pack these up? I want to rent a lock-up when I’m rolling in, you know, the astounding wealth of regular minimum wage pay. Right now they’re just going out in the field. Lend a hand, will you?”
Dean sucked in air. “God, no.” For some reason there was a splintering pressure coming from inside his shoulder, a pressure inside his shoulder somehow--and what Dean really needed was for the whole project, muscles and tendons and scar tissue and bone, to explode. Fuck. He buried his eyes in his hand, screwed them shut tight enough to see pointillist rainbows on black, all the colors of pain broken into violent detail.
Then Sam grabbed him.
For seven seconds, Dean was pretty sure he’d just up and gone, ceased to exist altogether. Then he crashed, spilled like raw egg through Sam’s fingers, ended up with Sam right in his face.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Dean, but I’m a little upset right now. I’m upset because I’m about to be homeless--again--and you’re too busy self-destructing to give a damn. Figured I’d reprise the role, because it was so fun the first time around. Driving around with you and Dad. Because Dad couldn’t figure out that families run on more than a tank of gas. And now you’re doing it, too.”
Dean drew a gasping breath. Sam had apparently forced him to some higher threshold of agony; coming down, everything else felt that much more livable. Stop, he said, voicelessly. Then, “Stop.”
It wasn’t a command until Dean grabbed a hunk of Sam’s hair with his good arm, jerked Sam to the ground headfirst, jaw smacking knee on the trip down. “Diggina little deep, don’t you think, Sammy--” Dean coughed and slid off the box, closer to the barrage of expletives Sam mumbled in response. “We can’t do this.”
“No, but I know a girl who definitely would.” A smack of lips. Dean felt hot wet breath at his nape, heard the panting of hounds, the scratch of claws on tile. “Hello, ladies.”
Dean swore. “Meg.”
“I know,” said Meg.
“What are you even doing here still. Don’t you have a hole to crawl into? This is our hole.”
“I used to,” Meg allowed. “I think you know what happened to it. I think you happened to it.”
“Oh, get over yourself,” Dean hissed. Meg was all old barbs and empty talk, threatless innuendos, vessel all taut translucent skin, dark veins, and greying hair. Her invisible hounds circled the room like old scars, thin jagged shadows of what they’d been. Maybe what they should still be. What the hell did Dean know. At some point, they’d done something right and got Hell gone. Hell-minus-Meg gone. Hell was gone, and Heaven left, and the rest of them got left with whatever shit they were stewing in now. So what the hell did Dean know.
“So. Decennial check up. How’s your world without Hell?”
“Better,” Sam answered instantly, pulling himself from the ground. He rubbed his jaw.
“All. under. Heaven, Sammy,” Meg crooned. “Ask any hunter. If there’s any left--dying breeds.”
Dean tensed, which was entirely not worth the effort.
“Just let it go, Dean. Fuck.” Sam massaged his jaw, where it joined his neck. “Forget about Meg, forget about your--whatever in California--”
“--Woman in white,” Dean supplied.
“Your--oh for the love of god. You gotta be kidding me. Just--just leave it, Dean. I mean it.”
Meg clapped him on his bad shoulder. It collapsed under her touch, plunged him into the void of almost-hell, blunted by reality and hazy with memory. The trip ended with Meg’s lips on his (goddamn it), papery and cold (goddamn it), leather tongue stretched to the back of his throat (goddamn it).
Confrontation, suspicion, regurgitation. These and more occurred to Dean. Then he decided he didn’t give a damn, and kissed back.
“What was that?” Sam sprang towards them so quick it was like he wanted in on the action.
“Hell is almost gone. I can feel it,” Meg said, abruptly cutting her lips from Dean’s.
Sam nodded slowly.
Sam shook his head slowly.
“I know you have the knife. Kill me.”
Again, Sam shook his head.
“What Helen Keller’s trying to say,” Dean started, before his train of thought jumped a rail. Detour tracks rattled pain pain pain.
“Sam’s trying to say--” he started again. “You’re stuck on this ride with the rest of us. So strap in, because you’re not getting out ‘til I figure out how I can get the fuck out. Because believe me--
Sam was pale, clammy-looking, like he’d been left in the tub one too many hours.
“What?” Dean repeated
Hellhounds prowled the room, the ripple of air and invisible glamour the room’s only movement.
Better not to ask.