And then I'll hopefully being able to finish the story on my own with this jump-start!
In a minute, Dean. The voice wasn’t that urgent, not enough to lever off the warm weight of sleep induced by 36 hours awake and the low rumble of the moving Impala. Sam snuggled deeper against the door.
Until the car jolted under him. “Sam.” Dean’s voice was no louder, but choked with panic.
Sam jerked upright as the car swerved again. It rattled along, no longer smooth, at least one wheel grating on the gravel shoulder. Trees whipped past the windows, darker shadows in dusk; they were still at speed, and Dean. . . .
“Dean!” Sam leaned over and grabbed the steering wheel. His brother’s left hand was locked around it, tugging the car out of a straight path, into the opposite lane. Where there were a pair of headlights approaching. Sam yanked on the wheel and the Impala swerved back. Not far enough. “Dean, let go. I’ve got it. I’ve got it."
Dean didn't make a sound, but his fingers slid away. The wheel gave, and Sam pulled the car back to the right side of the line. The oncoming headlights rushed past them. Sam blinked at the dim, straight stretch of road ahead; they were slowing a bit, even on this downgrade. Dean must have taken his foot off the gas. He risked a glance at his brother--what he could see of him, crammed so close under Sam's left side. "Hey, you okay?"
Dean was curled into himself, right arm hiding his face, the heel of that fist tight against his temple. He didn't answer.
Fine. Sam squinted through the gloom, trying to spot a widening of the shoulder where they could pull off. The speedometer showed a good 45 miles per hour, still too fast to pull over. No way could he reach the brake pedal, or the damn foot-operated parking brake. He grabbed the gearshift instead and forced it down a notch, dropping the car into the high hum of neutral. It slowed, though not by much, just as a "sharp curve ahead" sign flashed by. Oh, you've gotta be kidding me.
But there it was, the turn visible as a sudden wall of dark trees looming ahead of them. He could steer, but at this speed, without control of the brakes, the gas, they'd slide right off the road. "Dean, hit the brake!" Sam slapped his brother's knee with an open hand. "Now, Dean!"
Sam was thrown forward as the car jerked and skidded against the blacktop. For several long moments, it was all he could do to keep them on the road, keep the car from spilling sideways. The wheel juddered beneath his hands. Finally, as their speed dropped to nearly nothing, Sam nudged the car off the side of the road. Just enough space to get most of her out of the lane. She rolled to a stop and idled for a second, until Sam reached for the key in her dashboard and turned it.
The engine died. For the first time that night, Sam could hear the sighing of wind in the trees nearby.
And he could hear Dean, very softly repeating a single four-letter word to himself, like a mantra. "Fuck fuck fuck fuck..."
"Dean?" Sam eyed his brother; the daylight was rapidly fading, but still enough to see by, and there didn't seem to be blood anywhere. At the sound of his name, the swearing trailed off, but Dean didn't move. Just sat there, curled against the door, fist pressing into his forehead. Sam reached over and touched his shoulder; it was stiff with tension. "Hey. What happened? You okay?"
Dean shied from the touch, and turned blindly, fumbling for the door handle. He got it open, swung both feet out, but then bent double, his back to Sam, head dropping into his hands. Sam froze for a moment--that was a classic don't-puke-in-the-car move--but there was only the harsh, deliberate push and pull of breath.
Sam opened his own door. By the time he rounded the Impala, Dean hadn't moved, boots planted on the blacktop for balance, elbows braced on spread knees and his head bowed into both hands. Sam knelt, trying to get a look at his brother's face. "Hey." Nothing. No response at all. "Dean." That at least got a grunt. "Dean, look at me."
Dean kept his forehead pressed into the palms of his hands. "I'm okay, Sammy." The words were clear, but very, very quiet.
Sam dropped his own tone a little, despite the urge to yell. "Yeah? Maybe I'd have believed you five minutes ago. Before you almost crashed the car."
"Shit." Dean sounded more than a little dismayed, but he still didn't look up. "She okay?"
That question knotted itself at the base of Sam's spine. How disoriented was Dean, that he had to ask that? That he hadn't realized what was going on? "Yeah, she's fine. Dean, what happened?"
"Headache." Dean lifted his head a fraction, staring at his hands. "Thought my head was gonna fly right off."
Sam frowned to himself. Dean didn't get headaches, not as a regular thing anyway. "What, just like that? Out of nowhere?"
Dean shrugged. "Lack of sleep?" The suggestion was anything but convincing.
There were other possibilities, though. Likely ones. "Did you hit your head? Back in that warehouse?" This time Dean lifted his head all the way, squinting at Sam. "You said that mattress broke the fall. You said you were fine."
Guilt trips always got a predictable response out of Dean. "I did not hit my head! Dude, I know--" His raised voice dropped back to a near-whisper, and he looked back at his hands. "I know what a concussion feels like. Okay? This, uh, it's different than that."
"Yeah? Different how?" Sam got to his feet, leaned over his brother, and put a hand to the back of Dean’s skull, feeling for lumps or tender spots.
“Sam.” It was a warning, although Dean didn’t make a move to stop him.
Sam felt the tension in his own shoulders ease a little. Annoyance was a lot easier to deal with than that non-responsive attitude. He kept going, brushing aside bristles of short hair. “This’ll only take a minute. Come on, tell me how this is different from a concussion.”
“We drove outta Columbus over an hour ago,” Dean pointed out, reluctantly tilting his head so Sam could reach the right side. “Unless a rock just appeared inside the car and beaned me, no way this is a concussion.”
“We’ve seen stranger things,” Sam protested mildly. “And you’re showing all the classic symptoms--headache, nausea, confusion, sensitivity to sound and light--"
“Fuck that.” The muscles at Dean’s temple tightened under Sam’s fingers; the tension showed in his voice. “I’m not confused. I just . . . wasn’t all here for a minute.”
Sam swallowed against a suddenly dry throat. After a second he made himself continue the exam, and said slowly, “If you weren’t here, where were you?”
“Well, it was dark,” Dean began, and then stopped. Probably realizing how strange his description sounded, and starting to think better of trying to articulate it at all.
But any information was better than none, especially about something that had so easily incapacitated Dean. “Like you were about to pass out?”
Dean moved his head slightly, as if trying to shake it, then stopped and spoke instead. “No. Not like that. I could. . . hell, I could still feel the seat and the steering wheel and the gas pedal. But it was dark, and . . . .” He paused again, one hand coming up to rub against his forehead. “Something stank, like rotten meat. Like a dead body. And something wet, on my face. Like rain.” He wiped that hand across his face and looked at it. “Fuck. I sound like a crazy person.”
For a long moment, Sam couldn’t think of any reply that wouldn’t freak Dean out more. He leaned back against the side of the Impala. “Well . . . it doesn’t look like there’s any physical damage.”
“Told you. You should listen to your big brother.” Dean’s attempt at snark fell rather flat.
“How’s the headache now?”
Dean, staring at the ground, head still in one hand, didn’t answer for a minute. The knot of fear at the base of Sam’s spine started to blossom towards panic. “Better,” Dean finally said. “A lot better.”
Night was closing down around them, and neither spoke for a couple of minutes. Sam cleared his throat. “Look. Ruling out a concussion, or some random road poltergeist taking a shot at you, there’s a couple different things this could be.” Something was nagging at the back of his mind, and he paused, trying to pin it down.
Dean sighed. “Couldn’t it just be a one-time freaky thing?”
“Yeah, if you want to risk that.” Sam patted the Impala lightly, and Dean, getting the hint, glared at him. “It could be some other kind of brain issue. Aneurysms have been known to cause sensory hallucinations.”
"Whatever." Dean's tone was flat and final, rejecting that suggestion completely. "It'd be getting worse, not better."
Sam didn't want to say this, didn't want a replay of that first time he'd stood by Dean's hospital bed alone. "Dean, we don't know that for sure."
"Yeah we do," Dean told him, the shadow of his head still turned towards the ground. "It's not nearly as bad as it was."
Sam absorbed that, weighed the different ways his brother's determination would shape what they did next. "You okay to be driven?"
Dean didn't move. "Sure."
"Scoot over." Sam waited until Dean pulled himself up straighter, edged into the car, and eased himself over towards the passenger side. Sam swung into the driver's seat and pulled the door shut. For a moment, they sat there, and Sam wrestled with possible destinations. Finally he reached for the key, let the engine turn over to a hard rumble.
"Where we headed?" Dean slouched against the door, not looking at Sam.
"Back to Columbus." Sam checked the road for headlights in the dark, then flipped on the left blinker.
"The hell we are." Dean leaned across, slapped his hand onto the steering wheel. Sam couldn't see his face, but his voice was pissy in the extreme. "And I don't care why, either. Winchesters plus a warehouse fire? Usually you're the one who's bitching about Hendrickson finding our trail."
Sam was tempted to simply pull out. Unless Dean was feeling a lot better than he had been 60 seconds ago, it wouldn't turn into a fight. "It's the largest nearby city. Larger city means better equipped hospital, which means they'll have their own MRI machine."
"Big city means gangs, and police at the ER," Dean pointed out. When Sam didn't say anything, didn't make a move, Dean slowly let go of the wheel and settled back against the door. "We'll hit a little town somewhere in the next few miles. Let's find a motel and crash. Okay?"
Sam shifted into drive and pulled out into the same lane they'd been in, heading north. "Okay. But we're not done talking about this."
Dean snorted softly.
"Where'd you put the keys?"
Dammit. How could Dean be so cheerful? Sam squeezed his eyes a little more tightly closed and listened to the rustles and clanks of his brother rifling through the crap on the table, and then through what sounded like both duffels.
"Dude, I know you're not asleep, so cut it out and tell me where you stashed 'em."
Shit. Well, it wasn't like he'd been able to sleep. Not as much as he needed to, as much as he wanted to. Sam shoved a hand under his pillow. "Here." He held the keyring up, and cracked his eyelids open just in time to snatch it away from Dean's grab. "Where are you going?"
"Food, okay? It's nine a.m. Now gimme the keys." Dean's hand snagged Sam's wrist.
Sam yanked it free and sat up, burying that hand beneath motel blankets. "You are not driving. There's a diner down the street. Walk."
"The hell, Sam? It's thirty-five degrees out there!"
Dean made another grab for the keys; Sam elbowed him back and braced for a tackle. "You're feeling better," he said.
Dean rolled his eyes, managing not to verbalize the here we go again written all over his face. "One-time freaky thing," he assured Sam, waving a dismissive hand. "I feel great."
And he looked it. Looked a hell of a lot better than Sam felt at the moment, anyway. Sam tightened his grip on the hidden keys. Remembered how it felt trying to keep the car out of a ditch.
"And I'm hungry."
He would be; he'd turned down all offers of food the night before, which had worried Sam almost more than the near-disaster. "I don't care." Sam scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Look, wait for me to throw on some clothes or walk. I don't want you driving until we at least talk about what happened."
He really thought Dean was going to try and fight him for the keys, but after a moment Dean just sighed in exasperation and grabbed his jacket. "It's gonna take you half an hour just to look human. You want coffee?"
"Please." Sam kept his hand hidden, kept his grip tight until Dean had ducked out into what looked like a bright, cold day. Then he let himself flop back into the pillows. He could try to sleep until Dean got back. Try to forget that his brother could have killed them both and that he didn't know why. That he was going to have to start that conversation again as soon as Dean got back. That he'd probably have to take the damn keys into the shower with him.
Even if he did stay in bed, he doubted he'd be able to sleep any more than he already had.
Sam sat up, stretched, and swung his feet onto the carpeted floor. Maybe a hot shower would help. On a whim, Sam grabbed the remote from the bedside table and thumbed through channels until he hit the local morning news. A dapper man and a younger woman, who was obviously (though attractively) pregnant. That figured. In a town this small, anything that happened nearby was news, and you didn’t have to be all-consumed by ambition to make it into every home in thirty square miles.
He left the bathroom door open so he could hear the anchors talking. It wasn’t sleep or coffee or everything being all right, but the sound blurred the repeating thoughts in his head.
Dean says he’s fine.
Sam splashed water onto his face and swore--it felt like ice. At least it would help him wake up. Maybe he'd be able to think a little more clearly.
Yeah, right. Dean’s a liar. Always has been.
"It doesn't look like it’s going to get much warmer around here for a while--in fact, we're headed right into a cold snap to make up for that warm March we just got."
He picked out clean clothes from his duffel, gathering them off the carpet where his brother had dumped them while digging for the ring of keys. Boxers, jeans, undershirt, long-sleeved shirt.... Something to stay warm in.
Headaches can mean: injury, lack of food, lack of caffeine, stress (if Dean's never had a tension headache before, he's not gonna start now). Tumor? Aneurysm?
Migraines? Dean had never had one, but there was some kind of age-related thing about those, and some weird male-to-female ratio of....
Sam caught himself heading for the laptop, closed and charging on the table under the front window. No. He’d shower first. And anyway, the odds were against the manager having bothered to get the wireless Internet fixed during the night hours.
"Today, April tenth, marks the end of the first week in the search for two local children--Amanda Keller, last seen walking home from school the afternoon of the third; and Brandon Crump, reported missing after soccer practice later that day."
Sam counted back, and swallowed hard at the answer he came up with.
It's only been four days?
He retrieved the keys, used a rubber band to loop them to his wrist. It took almost five minutes for the water from the shower head to run hot enough to use, and he left the bathroom door partly open so he could listen to the police chief give a subdued statement. Nothing they can do. No leads. As if the kids just vanished.
Literally, it seemed. The Crump boy's footprints disappeared in mid-stride.
That fact tweaked something in his mind, something more interesting than the endless circle of anxiety, but Sam tipped his head into the hard spray and finished washing the soap out of his hair instead of following the hunch.
If Dean’s sick, I’ll have no backup.
The callous thought made him cringe. He scrubbed harder, his shoulders, his back, but he couldn’t escape the idea; it was something that he might have to face. The way that Dean had to face the fact that Sam could become a liability. The way he had to face
. . . the gun in his hand, and her pleading eyes, human not wolf, but she knew and she begged him . . . .
Only four days?
He was glad that the mirror had been clouded by steam, as he pulled on layers of clothes, toweled his hair from wet to damp. He couldn't stand to see himself, the bags under his eyes, the worn-out droop of his mouth. Couldn't stand to see the traces of her touch, branded on his skin, where hope burned him and turned to ash under his hands.
Dean's fine. He said so.
Sam tucked the keys into his shirt pocket, left the bathroom door wide so the steam could dissipate, and flipped open the laptop. Maybe the internet would be up and running. If not, Dad's journal sat tucked further back on the table, where Sam had left it the night before, after searching for any hint about road poltergeists or sudden debilitating headaches.
Dean doesn't have to be lying to be wrong.
Sam ignored the snort of breath the same way he'd ignored the click of the door unlocking, and the stamp of boots on the doormat. Ignored, that is, until a tumble of ice flakes showered his laptop's keyboard and spattered against his face and hands. "Dean!"
Dean plunked a covered paper cup--visibly steaming even indoors--onto the table next to Sam's elbow. "Be grateful, Sammy. I didn't take a sip the whole walk back." His brother's cheeks were flushed from the cold, and Dean ruffled both hands through his own hair, scattering the remaining snow everywhere.
Sam wiped melting droplets off the keyboard with his sleeve, then curled one hand around the cup, letting the warmth soak into his fingers. "Uh, thanks." The first sip was bitter and bracing.
Dean thumped into the chair opposite, ditching his wet jacket and gloves beside the ancient heater. "We got wireless? Or you just writing in your diary?"
"We have wireless." Sam let the jibe pass; he was too tired to bicker for the fun of it. "I'm a little surprised you remember that it was down when we got here. You went out like a light last night."
"I remember you pitching a fit," Dean said, grinning. "Like someone took away your favorite toy." He craned his neck, trying to get a look at the screen. "What you looking at? Anything fun?" He waggled his eyebrows.
Sam shook his head. Dean had slept for upwards of 12 hours--that would put anyone in a good mood. "I think we might have a job here." He scrolled back to the top of the page he'd been reading, then turned the laptop to face Dean.
Dean read a few lines, and his eyebrows climbed right up his forehead. So predictable. Sam leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, waiting for the inevitable. "Dude. Fairies?"
"The Fae, Dean. The 'Good People,' who have a pronounced interest in human children? We're not talking about unicorns, or... or angels, here. You know these guys exist."
"Not in the US, they don't. Or doesn't your geek brain keep track of distinctions like that? Nobody's ever reported 'Fae'," Dean made exaggerated air quotes, "crossing an ocean. They don't like bodies of water. Especially salt water."
Sam counted silently to five before replying, letting the shadows of apple trees and a scarecrow come to the front of his mind. "Gods of the orchard aren't supposed to be devouring sacrifices in Indiana, either. European settlers brought a lot of things with them."
"I don't even want to ask what you think fairies would be doing in this butthole town." Dean smirked. "Although you'd probably know, wouldn't you?"
Sam let out a patient breath, and counted to ten this time. "The first tab in the browser. That story was on the local news this morning."
Dean clicked over, still grinning to himself, and scanned the page. Sam saw the images again in his mind: petite, blond-haired Amanda smiling out of a school photograph; slightly tubby Brandon beaming over a birthday cake; childish footprints in half-melted snow covering a parking lot.
"There are a lot of things that go after kids, Sam." Dean had actually gotten serious. "Human perverts, rawheads, some kinds of ghosts. What, is this idea of yours all based on the footprints?"
"Kind of narrows it down, doesn't it?"
Dean shook his head. "Not far enough. Different locations probably rules out a spirit, but not necessarily. The kids have nothing in common except that both were outdoors when they vanished. Oh--and they both have younger brothers."
"What? That wasn't in the report I was reading." Sam reached for the laptop; Dean held onto it.
"I know that. There were a couple of cops in the diner this morning, and we had a friendly chat about the horrors of the modern world." Dean grinned. "Had'em eating out of the palm of my hand. They didn't mention the footprints, though. Just that one of the little boys was so upset about his sister that he's in the hospital, under sedation. Kept saying it was all his fault. Wasn't sure it was a hunt till now."
"How would the sibling thing figure in?"
Dean shrugged. "Dunno. But five year olds don't flip out like that. Adults do, sometimes, but a kid? Weird."
Sam took another sip of his coffee. "Okay, if you don't think it's fairies, what's your theory?"
"Don't have one yet." Dean scrolled further down the web page, not looking at Sam. "Could be anything that can fly. Or maybe demon possession?"
"How would a demon get a kid away from a location without leaving footprints?"
"Some demons do this weird teleportation thing. Crossroads demon did that when I summoned her; she was possessing a human, but I called her and then, bam! she was standing right in the empty road."
"Huh." Sam reached for his notebook and a pen.
"Yeah." Dean glanced up at Sam. "Hey, it could be gypsies. Don't they steal kids?"
"God, Dean." Sam plunked his coffee down and stared. "That's not just an urban legend, it's a pretty nasty racial slur. Just because the Gypsies' traveling lives were strange to those who settled down doesn't mean they randomly kidnapped children."
"You're forgetting the guy whose ass we just saved in Columbus," Dean said dryly. Sam could have hit him; he had not forgotten, but it had no bearing on this case. "The one who said he was a Gypsy chieftain? The one who was using some nasty-ass form of black magic to get revenge on the company that ripped him off?"
Sam sighed. That warehouse had stunk of blood and incense and wet clay, and everything had gotten out of control far too fast. "He didn't realize what he'd gotten himself into."
"He was playing with fucking fire, Sam. He's lucky I didn't toast him along with the critters he created." There was no room for mercy in Dean's voice. He shoved the laptop back at Sam. "Don't tell me someone like that wouldn't be capable of harnessing power and grabbing kids off the street with it if he wanted. Great way to avoid leaving evidence."
"Yeah. Maybe." Why Dean had decided it would be possible to blame this on the same thing as the case they'd just finished up was beyond Sam. Although, as he took another sip, and then swallow, of his coffee, he had to admit that his own theory was not that much better supported. Focus, Sam. "We need more information. Feds?"
"I already told those cops I was one of their off-duty brothers in blue."
Sam shrugged. "Okay, we'll go with that. Let me put my shoes on." He stood, and after a moment, dropped Dean's set of keys on the tabletop.
Dean glanced at him, frowning, then snatched the keys and displayed them like a trophy. "You are not getting these back."
Sam turned his back and pulled his shoes from underneath the bed. "I'm not a doctor. Do whatever you want." The words came out easily enough, even if they tasted wrong, even if telling himself that he'd probably over-reacted still wasn't completely helping.
"Last one to the car does laundry this week."
Even if maybe he had been over-reacting. Just a little. Sam tied the laces with a quick yank, and followed.
Ragged yellow crime scene tape fluttered around the edge of the back parking lot at First Lutheran Private School. Sam kept an eye on the building as they approached. Two guys this close to an elementary school might attract unwanted attention, but it wasn't recess, and with the temperature hovering near freezing nobody else seemed eager to spend time outdoors. A dusting of fresh snow covered the asphalt and dead grass, lining tree branches and sitting in little caps on the metal stakes used to set up the tape.
The wind had dropped since the night before, but it still bit at unprotected fingers. Sam tucked his hands deeper into the pockets of his parka. "Yeah, we're not going to find much here."
"Aren't you Mr. Sunshine?" Dean adjusted the headset and pulled his black watch cap down over both ears. "Figure out which direction the kid was walking, huh?" He headed left, pacing along the perimeter, head bobbing in time to non-existent music from the fake Walkman.
Sam noted a stand of oak trees across the lot, compared its position to the nearest wing of the school, and both to the background of the photos he'd pulled off the media site. Slowly he headed right, measuring the distance with his eyes.
Some thoughtful cop had tied an extra tag of yellow tape to the perimeter at the precise spot where Brandon's tracks had started. Sam glanced across the parking lot to where Dean was loitering, and waved at him before turning his back on the supposed crime scene. There probably wouldn't be any physical traces left after a week of rain, snow, and freezing temeratures, but physical might not be what they were looking for anyway. He wandered past the stand of trees, scuffing snow aside with his boots, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Once, he scooped up something yellowish and sniffed it--oh, gross. No demons were abroad, but someone's dog definitely was.
Sam had been expecting the question, and was annoyed at himself for starting when it came. He rose and brushed off his hands with a grimace. "Nothing I can find."
"Nothing on the EMF, either." Dean tapped the Walkman with the side of his hand. "I walked right out to the middle of the lot, and nothing."
"At least we know there's been no recent spirit activity." Sam sighed. It wasn't much more than they'd had an hour ago, and the blank snow, marked by Dean's booted tread, seemed to mock them. "Let's try the other scene."
"Nothing. Again." Sam sighed and let his eyes squint shut for a moment. Even under the heavily overcast sky, the snow shone white. He was getting tired of the glare. The Keller's house was dark blue, with white gingerbread trim; neat and tidy, any dead plants or stray toys covered over by snow. No answers here. Nothing but the empty shell of normal left when a family loses one of their own.
Dean looked back along their route: honest-to-God residential streets, not a subdivision, quiet on a weekday morning. "Five blocks of nothing, between the corner where that bus driver saw Ashley, and her house. She had to have been taken somewhere along there." He fidgeted. "I want to go back to that vacant lot, have another look."
"There's nothing there. We're going to have to talk to the parents." Sam fought the yawn that was trying to dislocate his jaw.
Dean gave a noncommital grunt and wandered toward the gate leading into the house's back yard. Suddenly he stopped, pulling his foot back as if he'd almost stepped on something. "Sammy. You ever seen anything like this?"
Sam joined him and crouched down for a closer look. The snow dipped down to a circle of clear sidewalk. Not as if someone had scooped it clear or dug out the snow, but more like.... "Looks like something melted the snow." There was a small dark stain on the bare concrete. "You think that's blood? It's not enough for any kind of ritual that I know of. More like some kid fell off his bike."
"Or her bike." Dean shrugged. "Blood can’t melt snow."
Sam shrugged, then stood. “Not normally, no. Are we going to talk to the parents now?"
"Would if they were here." Dean turned and headed for the car.. "But I'd rather talk to the little brother."
"Look, buddy, I don't care who you are. This is the psych ward." The nurse’s neon blue scrubs made the cream-colored walls look ill by comparison. She couldn't weigh more than 90 pounds, but with that glare and the set of her shoulders you could easily mistake her for seven hulking feet of Marine drill sergeant. Sam kept the grin off his face. It was almost worth having this line of investigation blocked just to watch her getting in Dean's face.
Especially since the vaunted psych ward was really 6 rooms at the end of the 5th floor. Sam could see four year old Nick Keller through the glass window in the door across the hall. He was curled up on the nondescript bed, eyes half-shut, blond hair sticking out in all directions. Completely still, not a twitch out of him.
"Yes, ma'am, I know that." Dean almost never sounded this polite. "We just wondered if there's been any change in his condition."
"You're not the officers who came in with the boy." The nurse turned her glare on Sam, who pulled his attention away from the door and gave it back to her.
"Nope," Dean agreed cheerfully. "Paul McGill's a buddy of mine. He heard me and my partner here were coming down to the hospital to take a statement, and asked if we'd check on the kid for him."
The woman's shoulders relaxed the tiniest bit, and she glanced at Sam to see if he would back Dean up. "Yeah," Sam said, reaching up to smooth his hair with a faux-nervous hand. "He's kinda--this case, it's hard on him. Paul's got his own kid, you know," he confided, in a moment of daring invention.
Her eyes were still narrowed; she might not buy it. After a few long seconds, she shrugged. "Even the family doesn't get in here right now without the doctor. But I remember Paul. You tell him to pray, if he's a praying man." She glanced over her shoulder at the closed door. "He’s calmer than he was, but something happened, and nothing he says makes much sense."
Dean nodded. "Okay. Thanks." He beamed his brightest smile at the nurse. She crossed her arms and waited for them to leave. Dean tapped Sam's elbow. "Well. We gotta be going. Don't want to be late getting back, the lieutenant’ll have our hides."
As they strode down the hall, Sam checked the signs on the wall and jerked a thumb to the right, the opposite of the way they'd come in. "The waiting room for this ward is down there."
Dean made the turn. "Awesome. If you can't talk to the kid. . . ."
Sam was right; there was one couple in the waiting room. Arlene Keller sat in a corner, staring at the floor, fingers busy folding and refolding a ragged sheet of Kleenex. She was slender, blonde like her children. With hair done and makeup on, she'd be a knockout. Sam glanced at his brother. Dean had noticed, too.
Her husband Jason, shorter and stocky, was across the room negotiating aggressively with a vending machine. He thumped it with the side of a fist. "Goddamnit!"
"Jason . . ." Arlene objected, in a weary tone.
He paid no attention, just continued to beat on the panel. Dean cleared his throat and strolled up beside him. "Whatcha trying to get out of there?"
Jason whirled on him. "What do you care?"
Dean stood his ground. Shrugged. "Hate to see the machine win. You want a hand?"
Jason just looked at him.
"Like this." Dean reached up and found a handhold along the top of the machine. "You get a grip on the other side, and we'll tip it forward a few inches, okay?"
Jason threw up his hands, then got in position. Together they hauled the machine forward, and the packet of cookies tumbled into the basket below. They let the machine thump back onto its base, and Jason pulled out his prize.
"Where'd he learn that?" a soft voice said. Sam glanced down at Arlene, who was watching the struggle with interest. Her hands had gone still.
Sam smiled at her and lowered his own voice, almost to a whisper. "We're cops."
Arlene looked sharply at him. "I guess I should be glad you're using your knowledge on the side of light."
Sam shrugged. "We do our best." He settled into a chair opposite Arlene, and offered his hand. "Sam [PlaceholderName]. The safecracker there is my partner, Dean [Placeholder]." He heard Dean snort at that, and Dean and Jason joined them.
She took his hand in a weak attempt at a shake. Her hand was cold, and trembling; she pulled it right back and clasped both of them together in her lap. "I’m Arlene. This is Jason."
Dean made a show of looking from one to the other. "Arlene Keller?"
Jason stiffened. "Yes. If you're reporters, I'm calling security right now." He had his cell phone out before Dean could flash his badge. After looking at the ID for a long moment, he settled a little "What do you want?"
Don't answer that, Sam silently begged Dean. Instead, Sam leaned forward to catch Arlene's eye. "How is Nick doing?" he asked simply.
She ducked her head and put a hand to her mouth.
"Paul's a friend of mine," Dean explained to Jason. "He heard we were coming down here to get a statement from someone. Asked us to look in on Nick. The nurse wouldn't tell us anything, so I figured we'd have to report failure."
Arlene drew in a ragged breath. "He's not doing any better." Her voice cracked, but she kept going. "It's been a week, and he still won't stop crying except when he's drugged, and he’s all mixed up." She buried her face in her hands.
Sam put a hand on her shoulder for comfort.
Jason sighed. Arlene was holding in sobs by sheer force of effort, but Jason’s shoulders squared as Sam looked at him, his face relaxed into complete calm. Shutting everything down. Keep going. Do the job. Sam could almost hear his father's voice behind those eyes. "That's about it." Jason's tone was even, too. "He keeps saying that it's his fault that Mandy's gone. That he didn't know...something. That the monster has her."
"The monster?" Dean jumped in, and Sam shot him a look of death. "Not a monster?"
Jason frowned at him, but Arlene nodded. "He didn’t say ‘monster,’ though,” she choked out. “He said ‘critter.’ The...sidewalk critter. Whatever that is."
"I'm sorry," Sam told her. "Nick must really love his big sister."
Arlene laughed, not too far off from a sob. “Yeah. He always wants to play with Mandy and her friends. She brushes him off. He’s too little, doesn’t know how to play her games. I always have to–had to–have to tell her to include him sometimes.”
“He protective of her?” That was Dean’s question, naturally.
Jason rubbed slow circles on his wife’s back. “Other way around. Mandy will get between Nick and bigger kids, between Nick and dogs. Nick’s just four. He still thinks the world revolves around him. I didn’t even know he knew what it meant to be . . . responsible.” His face was still impassive, but his voice broke harshly on that last word.
Dean leaned against the side of the Impala, waiting for Sam to catch up to him. “You know, sibling rivalry isn’t supposed to involve the boogeyman.”
“Who says it does?” Sam ducked into the passenger seat, closing the door against rising wind.
Dean slid into the driver's seat and continued as if he hadn’t heard. “It’s supposed to involve laughing at you with no hair. Or the bottom falling out of your cereal box. Or--"
"--me telling Rachel Alum that you were dating two other girls?” Sam suggested, hoping to shut him up.
Dean just grinned. “Anything not involving guilt.” He revved the motor and backed out.
I didn’t know he knew what it meant to be responsible.
There had been a day--Sam couldn't have been more than four, Dean looked around 8 in his memory. Pine tree paper on the walls, could have been one of a hundred motel rooms they’d stayed in. Waking up alone there, and calling for Dean, and how relieved he’d been when Dean came back with sodas from the machine.
If Dean hadn’t come back, Sam didn't think he would have considered it his fault. It was Dean's business to come back, just like it was Dad's.
Dean was right. Vanishing footprints aside, this was too weird not to be a case.
Sam floundered out of sleep reluctantly, trying to figure out what had woken him. Half sitting up, all he could see was darkness. A car passed outside. It was cold. Something moved across the room. “Dean?” No answer. “You okay?”
A groan. “I would be, if some moron would quit leavin’ his duffel in the middle of the floor for other people to trip over.”
Sam flopped back into his pillows. He’d heard Dean take a spill on the way to the bathroom, that was it. “Jerk.”
He pulled the blankets up so far over his head that he didn’t really hear Dean’s weary response: “Go back to sleep, Sam.”
The alarm’s strident beeping vaporized his dreams like a tiny atomic bomb. Sam rolled over, fumbling for the switch with one long arm.
Silence. Thank God. Sam sank into his pillow face-first, but there was no sleep left in him, for a change. He could hear a quiet bird outside the window, and the gray light of early morning crept in to faintly illuminate the room.
Gray the light might be, but it wasn’t all that early. Just overcast. Probably more snow getting ready to fall. And they had research to do. Kids to find. He should get up. Especially since Dean wasn’t making a sound, which probably meant that Sam would have to be the driving force this morning. And also meant he’d get first dibs on the shower, if he hurried.
Sam sat up and stretched. He could almost see his breath--T-shirt and sweat pants were not cutting the cold at all. Sam swung his feet out of bed and padded to the thermostat near the window, nudging it up a few degrees. A quick glance outside showed he’d guessed right: a new layer of snow, and clouds above heavy with more.
Okay, bathroom first. He rubbed his bare arms briskly. Hot shower. Then breakfast. Or maybe, if Dean wanted to sleep in a bit, he’d go through some more of the research they’d picked up the afternoon before.
Sam turned, and noticed that Dean’s bed was empty, and the bathroom door was shut. Dammit, he beat me, was his first thought. But it was so quiet. No singing, no clatter, no running water. Dean’s boots were under a chair, his jacket folded over the back, so he hadn’t gone out.
Sam crossed straight to the bathroom door and knocked. “Dean, I need the bathroom.”
“Come on, let me in.” Sam tried the knob, expecting it to be locked. Instead, the door swung open. The room was dark and still, only shreds of light getting through the tiny thick-paned window. Not a thing looked out of place since he’d used the toilet the evening before.
Except for Dean, curled on his side on the bare linoleum floor.
The bathroom was tiny, with about enough room for one person standing upright. Sam could barely see his brother in this light, much less in inch far enough in to reach his head and shoulders. He nudged the bottom of Dean’s socked foot with his toes. “Hey. Dean.”
Dean twitched, drawing further into the fetal position, one arm over his face.
Not quite daring to take his eyes of his brother, Sam fumbled for the light switch.
The flood of florescent light got an instant reaction: Dean pushed up on one elbow, cringing, arm still across his face. “Geez, Sam, turn that thing off!”
His voice was intense, but low, controlled. Sam switched off the light and said the first thing that came into his head. “Dude, are you hung over?”
Dean snorted. Lowering that protective arm, he eased into a more comfortable-looking position. Head still lowered, eyes closed. “You pissed I had a party without you?”
No, that wasn’t right. Sam had slept hard last night, but surely not hard enough to avoid hearing big brother come in--or get--drunk. The room didn’t smell like booze. Didn’t smell like vomit either, so Dean hadn’t been in here throwing up. “Liar. But if you’re not hung over, why did you crash on the floor in here? It’s freezing.”
“You were snoring,” Dean snapped back without a pause. “Like having Bigfoot for a roommate. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
He still hadn’t moved to get up. Sam sighed and crossed his arms. “Okay, the room is now Bigfoot-free, so why don’t you get out there and let me hit the toilet and the shower.”
Dean grunted, then got to his feet--but not quickly, and not without putting a hand on the counter to steady himself.
Sam quashed a flutter of panic (overreacting, you are overreacting) and stood aside. Dean shuffled past without looking at him, easing his body along as if he were made of glass. As if any sudden movement might shatter him. He just slept on a cold floor all night, Sam reminded himself. But usually even being full-body slammed into a wall wasn’t enough to make Dean move like this.
The last time he’d seen this was after Dean let himself out of the hospital. After the incident with the taser.
Sam shook off the memory; even in this snowy light, Dean didn’t have that scary blue tinge to his lips or the purple, bruised shadows under his eyes. But he was squinting as if the light hurt. And Sam had seen that recently.
He grabbed Dean’s arm. Dean spun, throwing off Sam’s hand, and winced at the motion. “For fuck’s sake, Sam, what?”
“How bad’s the headache?” Sam asked him.
“Don’t have a headache,” Dean said flatly, and turned his back.
Sam stepped around in front of him. “Bullshit. When did it start?”
“I don’t have a headache,” Dean said through gritted teeth. “I slept it off.”
Sam took a breath instead of repeating the bullshit comment. That admission had come more easily than he’d expected. “When did it start?” he asked again. Dean had seemed fine when Sam went to bed--sitting up with his attention split between the muted television and Dad’s journal.
“I dunno.” Dean rubbed a careful hand over his face. “Had a freaky dream and it hurt when I woke up. Probably banged my head or something when I fell,” he added quickly.
“So night before last, there’s no way you hit your head, but last night. . . .” Sam ran a hand through his own hair. Dean looked away. “Wait a sec, when you fell? Over my duffel? I though you said you woke up with the headache.” Sam glanced across the room, to where he remembered slinging his duffel after digging through it the day before. It was still there, tucked neatly against the end of his bed. Dean still wasn’t looking at him. “What did you do, roll out of bed? What the hell were you dreaming about?”
The instantly defensive look on Dan’s face would normally give Sam at least a day’s worth of good ribbing. “I don’t know,” he said plaintively. “It was dark. Wet. I was looking for something I couldn’t find. I don’t know.”
“And you fell out of the bed and woke up with a headache.”
Dean glared at him. “I don’t have it now.”
Sam stepped closer to his brother. “How bad was it?”
Dean ducked around him and knelt down to unzip his own duffel, pulling out a fresh T-shirt and pair of socks. “I took some aspirin and slept it off.”
Sam sighed. “And you’re fine.”
“Yeah.” Dean looked up and very deliberately met Sam’s gaze. “I’m fine.”
This really wasn’t going anywhere. Sam tucked his arms against his chest; it still wasn’t warm enough in here. “I want you to get checked out.”
Dean ignored that, digging for a clean pair of boxers, reaching for his jeans from the day before. “You got copies of those historical records, right? I want to see them. See if this has happened before. How many kids.”
Sam sat on the edge of the bed. “Dean, we can spare a couple of hours to make sure you’re okay.”
Dean rubbed a thumb across his forehead. “You don’t know that. If it’s not faeries, they could already be dead.” He jerked his head towards the bathroom. “Make it a fast shower, dude, I need some coffee.”
Dean turned his back and skinned out of his ratty T-shirt. “Come on, we don’t have all day.”