The Impala was untouched, right where they left it, tucked into a parallel parking spot that ran up a hill and demanded the use of emergency brakes. Dean paused and leaned on the front fender, folding arms across his chest like armor, and Sam shoved his hands in the pockets of his own jeans, his particular form of protection to seem less tall, less obvious. Familiar habits for the both of them.
“Freaks,” Dean said sourly, breath steaming, the cold chewing through his leather coat. His dad’s leather coat. Sam didn’t respond except to pucker brows and frown slightly. “So, what? You think we can trust them? Seriously, Sammy?”
“Sam. And no, I didn’t say that. But they were working with Sylvie and either they can help us, or they had a hand in her disappearance. Whichever way, we’re stuck with them, freakishness, notwithstanding.” The last few words were said sotto voce. Dean realized he had inadvertently poked one of Sam’s psychological bruises. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that and wasn’t in the mood for a chick flick moment, so Sam would just have to man up and deal for the time being.
Fact was, Dean’s head still felt half-stuck in mud and he craved shuteye, but they had to sift through Sylvie’s crap and find a place to crash for the night before anything else. Might just stay in her room, if he could get used to the musty stink of old furniture and hippie. “All right, fine, what time is it?”
“Awesome. Need anything from the car?”
“Yeah, my laptop. And one of those chemical ice packs.”
Dean rocked off the Impala and opened the trunk, tossed Sam a small plastic package and a big canvas rectangle, the latter protecting the one thing Sam valued of all his possessions: the computer. Dean had the car, his amulet, a fistful of cherished old cassette tapes, Dad’s leather coat, the best damned sawed-off in all of hunterdom, so many comfort items that kept him grounded and secure and well-oiled. Sam had a goddamned machine. Not that it wasn’t handy and all but really? So…unattached.
“You buying all that magi malarkey?” Dean asked, looking over and up. Sam had cracked the icepack and was busy pressing it to his forehead and wincing. They threaded through the colorfully congested weekend sidewalks, dodging tourists, homeless, and locals alike. It made Dean squirrelly with claustrophobia, to push through people just to get from Point A to Point B. The only time he liked doing that was at a bar with a girl and a beer, sometimes hot wings, as the end game.
Sam shrugged, shouldered around some guy with a dirty mohawk and a fistful of flyers hawking a garage band calling themselves the The Gangcookies. “Dunno. I suppose it’s possible. Sylvie isn’t a fool, Dean. If she thought they were dangerous, she wouldn’t be working with them, right? Besides, I think the British guy liked her. They might’ve been…” Sam made a gesture that was distinctly un-Sammish and he grinned while he did it.
Mmmhmm. I see how it is. Sam was just pushing Dean’s buttons for the ‘freak’ comment and could suffer an elbow to the kidney for it. Instead, Dean got the hard side of the laptop and decided further retribution was a bad idea. “Yeah, but witches, Sam? The shit they do, I don’t know. The power to cast spells comes from a source, and that source ain’t Candyland. It’s infernal. You know it and I know it. Just because the chick can spin it to look all lollypops and Barbie shoes doesn’t mean it’s healthy.”
Sam opened the door to the Red Vic, held it for Dean to pass first with an off-handed “Age before beauty” comment which earned him a humorless “Ha ha” in return. “I’m not disagreeing, Dean, just saying we have to give them the benefit of the doubt with a grain of salt until we know better.” Sam’s hands wagged back and forth with the cadence of the clichés, a ‘yadda yadda yadda’ sort of gesture.
Dean grunted, rolled his eyes. Voice of reason, my ass. A couple dozen people had crowded into the cramped, warm café, clustered around a corner stage hosting some sort of performance, an open mic night according to the dry-erase sign tacked to one wall. A guitarist wearing a vest that looked like one of those crocheted plant hangers your grandma used to make caterwauled above light chatter, sounding totally unlike Bob Dylan despite song selection. Serendipity, because it allowed for the boys to slip upstairs virtually unnoticed.
Sylvie’s room sat, still unlocked, still a mess, still sans Sylvie. She must’ve paid for a chunk of time up front and requested privacy, which was standard operating procedure for a hunter. Dean secured the lock behind them, however, and sure as hell wasn’t going to pick up any scraps of paper slipped under the door. Sam righted the toppled bedside lamp; it was burning like a trooper and had the oddly colored glow of an environmentally friendly bulb. They set to work, falling back on time-worn habits, Sam taking the reading and Dean doing the digging. They’d already made a cursory scope of the room, pre-sleeping spell, so it was time to dig deeper, start turning over furniture and examining the fine print.
Sam methodically plucked thumbtacks from the makeshift redwood corkboard, stacking various types of media into their own separate piles as was his inclination. Sam could categorize and tabulate and correlate like nobody’s business, which was a very good thing because it drove Dean effin’ crazy. Dean would far rather dig through pajama drawers and upend shoeboxes. There was something innately satisfying about making a mess in pursuit of the truth. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, right? Dean wasn’t finding much, though, despite his best efforts: an empty bottle of Jack; most of Sylvie’s weaponry which was disconcerting because she seldom left home without them; an old t-shirt from J & L Harley Davidson, Sioux Falls, SD; $100 in cash, thank God because they’d left their funds at the magi’s; and a fistful of photographs, tucked beneath a loose flap of fabric in a duffel bag.
“Hey. Sammy. Look at this.” Dean kneed across the bed and stood up beside Sam, shoulder to almost shoulder, shuffling through a half-dozen or so yellowed, dog-eared photos. One by one he passed them over. Bobby, with Sylvie hugging him hard in spite of the good-natured grimace on Bobby’s face, shadowed by his omnipresent ballcap, standing in front of the salvage yard, beers in hand. Another picture, Sylvie, cheesing before a huge glorious hole in the earth so wide the atmosphere made its farthest rim hazy with distance. There might’ve been the tip of a burro’s ear in the shot.
“I’ll be damned,” Sam murmured, smiling over the image. “She made it to the Grand Canyon before you did. You lost that bet, Dean.”
“I sure did,” Dean said, absently wondering who was holding the camera.
A picture of someone’s dog. Another of someone’s toddler with the same dog licking the kid’s icing-smeared cheeks. Dean had no idea who they were. Family, maybe? A niece? Then a very familiar face. His own. With Sam. He remembered that Saturday in sepia shades and hazy heat-waves, one Indian summer they went to the Country Apple Orchard not far from Bobby’s place to pick Honey Crisps or some particular apple variety that Sylvie swore was the very best ever, no lie. They were both grinning like fools, chunks of apple wedged in their mouths and arms slung over each other’s shoulders. Seconds after Sylvie had snapped the pic, Dean had shoved Sam backwards over a hay bale but Sam’s stupid long leg flipped up and caught Dean under the chin with the heel of his boot and he very nearly bit his tongue clean off. They’d all laughed through the blood because blood didn’t bother them any more, and completely terrified a church group that was there on tour but which just made it all the funnier.
“God, I hope we find her,” Sam said softly.
“Yeah, me too.” Dean sat heavily on the edge of the bed, tossing the photos aside and pinching the bridge of his nose. “You got anything?”
“Dunno. Whole lot of stuff that doesn’t seem particularly related. Clippings of the missing women, gone in the last six months but we knew that. Should probably ask the magi if they were all members of the, uh, coven or whatever. Postcard from Chinatown, nothing on the back. Bunch of pamphlets from psychics, some of them Sylvie already noted were scams. A business card from a tattoo parlor. ‘Gypsy Ink.’ Maybe we can check that out tomorrow. Some band fliers. But that’s about it.” Sam exhaled and dropped down next to Dean. “Guess I’ll hit the social networking sites, see if any of the women had something else in common.”
“Guess I’ll watch TV…” Dean shrugged out of his coat and started pawing around in the covers for the channel selector. Didn’t see one, but then upon closer inspection, nor did he see a television. His shoulders sagged. “Are you kidding me? There’s no TV! Sonofabitch, you’d think we were in the middle of a friggin’ jungle or – ”
Sam thumbed towards the floor-to-ceiling wallpaper redwoods.
“Ah, shuddup,” Dean said, grabbing his coat again. “Fine. I’m going to that 24-hour market we passed. Get a six-pack. You want something?”
“Grab me a Yoohoo?”
Sam grinned and Dean knew Sam just wanted to force him to ask the cashier for something brainless like that watery chocolate swill, which Sam really did seem to like for some God-awful reason. “Lock the door, Samantha.” And he left.
The hootenanny was breaking up as Dean drifted outside. Pedestrian traffic had thinned considerably; this wasn’t the shiniest section of town at night, despite the peace signs and psychedelia. It was still the place where indigents gathered, huddled in the gloom of closed storefronts with their dogs and drugs and dreams. Crouched bodies in dirty blankets sat under streetlights like fallen fruit, rotting on the ground.
Dean squared his shoulders, narrowed his gaze. He’d perfected a “Don’t fuck with me” demeanor and it served him well, tall and imposing next to anyone but Sam. He kept the pace brisk, hands free from his pockets in case he needed to use them to, oh, hit something. Half an hour ago he could’ve slept; now, he was over-tired and guttering, bug-zapper wired with worry and the cold.
“Spare a dollar, friend?” The shadows released a weathered voice and it sounded so dry, so perishable, Dean simply had to slow his gait and look. A hand, dirt caked in every crease, extended spidery, shuddering fingers. The guy wasn’t old, wasn’t as old as Dean expected. Hard to tell because life had not been kind. His eye sockets were too deep to read color, cheekbones sharp as razors. Dark, dirty hair jutted every which way, clothing an indeterminate gray. Beyond that, details were lost. An empty beer can rolled away from his feet when he shifted. “Just one dollar?”
Dean didn’t stop. He had Sylvie’s $100 in his pocket and that was the entirety of their funds until he and Sam figured out something else or retrieved their cards and wallets. And this guy was just going to drink it away; he wasn’t shooting for a well-balanced meal or a pint of milk or anything smart. Dean kept walking. A dozen steps later, however, he turned around and came back. Gave the guy ten bucks. “Get the good stuff, all right?”
The shadow slipped the bill from Dean’s fingers, wadded it up close. “Yeah, man, thanks. Thanks.”
That could’ve been me, Dean thought, a weariness settling in his bones. If not for John Winchester’s insistence the boys learn how to grift, master the art of credit card fraud and flickering puppyish eyes at soft women. Dean never had a problem with sticky fingers or breaking and entering. Sam did, but made up for it by feigning a good drunk, disguising the fact his pool and dart games were killer. They flew beneath the radar and kept their heads above water, if just barely. And as long as they had the Impala, they were never homeless.
Quite suddenly, Dean missed his father enough to bring on the stinging waters. It hit him out of the blue sometimes, that echoing void, all the loaded questions left fallow in the considerable gouge of John’s passing. Dean felt orphaned, in more than the literal sense. Cut loose and adrift, too much sail and not enough anchor, his only harbor a big black car and Sam. Sam, who needed Dean to be his savior. No pressure there. Dean paused, briefly pressing the heels of his palms to his eyes. Christ, walk it off, Winchester. You’ve got beer and Yoohoo to procure. Don’t be such a girl.
The tears receded as quickly as they’d risen. Just tired, he reasoned wanly. Having pulled himself together, Dean cornered into a building labeled ‘Superette’ which touted not just groceries, but champagne and coffee beans as well. Dean squinted through the blinding florescence, bee-lining for beer. He splurged on Corona because he felt justified after having visited charity upon the world in the form of a ten-dollar bill left in the hands of a bum.
The bum was gone when Dean passed by again. Good.
He tried not to stomp up the groaning wooden staircase, figuring many of the Red Vic’s guests were heading for The Land of Nod, it being almost 1:30 in the morning and all. Dean rapped softly on the Redwood Room plaque, whispered Sam’s name. Nothing. Crap. Dean tried the knob and it opened easily. Double Crap. Dean’s heart stuttered as the door drifted open, hinges whining…until he heard soft snores.
Sam forgot to lock up, and it was a good thing too because the dumbass was fast asleep and Dean didn’t have a key or his picks. He slipped inside, shutting and, dammit, locking the door behind.
Dean set the grocery bag on a dresser, displacing several bottles of Sylvie’s girlie tonics, and shuddered out of his coat, toeing off boots, leaving both in a pile on the floor. He wasn’t even thirsty anymore but cracked open a beer because it was there. Sam rolled over and Dean had to hustle to grab the laptop before it thudded off the bed. He closed the thing and set it beside the bag.
Sam’s forehead was one big bruise; the kid was gonna have the mother of all headaches in the morning and Dean wasn’t going to hear the end of it until well after lunch and they got busy and Sam forgot about it in lieu of the case. Kid, ha. Sam’s stocking feet hung off the end of the bed and his hands were as big as catcher’s mitts, curled to his chest in loose fists. Some kid. But no matter how much a man he became, Sam would always be Dean’s kid brother. Damn straight. You just remember that, Sammy, if things go south. If the shit Dad said makes any kind of sense, hits any kind of fan. You remember I’m your older brother and I have to make the hard decisions for us. And you owe me. Dean swiped the sweating bottle across his brow and settled into bed next to Sam. Watched for a few moments until his lids grew heavy and the beer turned warm. You owe me, Sam. But he didn’t really mean it.
Dean’s first thought was a big one: earthquake. The mattress was trembling, no, make that jolting, and things were crashing, blankets being tugged off the bed to the floor, a voice hissing “oh God” over and over like one long word. Pre-dawn gave the room a dead, dim, colorless quality that made it difficult to discern shadow from substance but something huge was rocking in the corner. Dean slammed around the bedside table, floundering for a lamp, his other hand already clutching cold metal beneath the pillow. The gloom evaporated with the pull of a chain-cord and Dean squinted, disoriented.
“Oh God oh God oh God, Dean, God – ” Sam had palms pressed flat to either wall, eyes rabid and darting, following motion Dean couldn’t see. A thin trickle of red seeped from a split in his lip, sweat soaked t-shirt half-up his torso in disarray as Sam slid down the corner.
Dean hauled across the bed, nearly snarled in sheets. “Sammy, WAKE UP. It’s a dream, just a dream.” He grasped Sam’s biceps, pulled him up, even shook him because that’s what you did, right? He suddenly found himself very, very awake.
“So much blood!” Sam’s fever-bright gaze couldn’t steady on Dean’s face; it darted frantically under a forehead haggard with stress and knowing Sam’s past visions, pain. “There’s so much blood!”
“No, Sammy, you bit your lip. It’s cool, there’s not that much blood.” Dean dodged his face to put it right in front of Sam’s sights, forcing his brother to see him instead of whatever Hell was playing in the horror movie of Sam’s mind.
It seemed to work. Sam’s lids fluttered. His blown pupils struggled into cross-eyed focus, Dean only inches from his nose, and his breathing calmed.
“You don’t get it, Dean; it was too real and too red and I saw it with eyes open. No dream.” Sam wrenched from Dean’s grip, shoved past. He grabbed the first thing he could find to write on, the postcard from Chinatown, clicked lead into a mechanical pencil that had been left sitting on a stack of newspaper articles. Scribbled furiously.
“God damned visions,” Dean said, craning to see Sam’s masterpiece. Looked like furious scribbles, maybe a flower, if you squinted just so. He hated it when Sam did this. Hated it. Big “H”. God damned visions. “All right. What else did you see?”
Sam rubbed at his forehead, cringing in evident pain. Words came out in a flood, as though terrified he’d forget something the more awake he became. “The blood. That flower. Snake…a snake. But not a real one, I dunno, a cartoon? Like a drawing.” Sam lowered onto the bed but would’ve missed the edge had Dean not pulled him back by the back of his shirt. “And that purple-haired kid, the one from the house. In the blood. Blinding white light. Mouths. Mouths everywhere…”
“You’re not making sense, Sam.”
“I know; I’m sorry. Since when have these things made sense?”
“Since about never.”
Sam looked over and his eyes were liquid over dark smudges, voice a rough mumble. “All I know is the magi? They’re in deep shit.”
Dean’s head drifted to thud against Sam’s shoulder. “I was afraid of that.”