Author: Guede Mazaka
Sam woke up and the world wasn’t on fire.
He blinked at the dark room for a few moments, unsure whether he was more frightened or relieved. Then he remembered about breathing, and put his head down on his knees and sucked air through the blanket. It smelled musky, salty, kind of like potato chips and dogs. He tried to be comforted, or to at least get his head on straight. Goddamn it, it’d been years.
Something lurched in the hall, its shadow violently slashing across the door; Sam started, then settled down. After a moment, the shadow turned into Dean staggering up to clutch at the door-frame, bleary-eyed and rubbing at the bruise on his jaw from yesterday’s rundown of a manslaughter suspect. “Sammy? What…”
“I had a dream,” Sam said after a moment. And even then he couldn’t help trying to hold back the words so they slurred and dragged. Talking about it made it real. Maybe it’d end up real anyway, but no point in hurrying it along.
Dean didn’t understand at first, and he lifted his head to ask what the hell Sam was doing, making him wake up this—and then he did. Something small and scared flinched in the back of his eyes, so quick Sam almost didn’t catch it. Then he swore under his breath and moved his head sideways, leaning it against the frame and closing his eyes. A moment later, he opened them. “Time?”
“Two-fifty…” Sam glanced at the clock, then adjusted for the lag “…three. But it—it already happened.”
“Great. Guess I know what Paul’s gonna toss at me over coffee tom—this morning,” Dean muttered. He lifted his head, then knocked it lightly against the door-frame. Then he grimaced, but it wasn’t at whatever pain he was feeling from the bump on the forehead. “I heard you yelling, so don’t bullshit me. How bad was it?”
Sam didn’t want to think about it. In fact, he wanted to lie down and go back to sleep and pretend the whole damn thing hadn’t happened, even if he’d known for forever that that never worked. All that ever had done was get Dean sitting on the edge of the bed, crying the dirt and blood off his face and telling Sam it was still going to be all right, they’d still—Sam didn’t need to be remembering that right now. “Somebody burned to death.”
The silence following Sam’s words was thick. Thick and muddy so it muffled the background city noises and clouded up the space between them so Sam couldn’t make out Dean’s expression, or more probably expressions.
“God.” So softly that it barely broke through the quiet.
“Not the ceiling, though. It’s not it again—something else,” Sam belatedly added. He could feel it coming—
--Dean snorted and propped up his elbow on the door so he could pinch the bridge of his nose. Some of the tension drained out of him and he slouched against the frame. “Well, thanks a fucking lot for letting me have the panic attack first.”
Normally Sam would snap back about how it wasn’t exactly a controllable ability or even something that came with knobs for tuning when the picture was out of focus, but he’d deserved that one. “I’m sorry! I just—I haven’t had one since Dad. It was one of those, Dean, not like the flashes I have all the time. It was…I thought I couldn’t have those anymore.”
Dean’s shoulders gradually hunched up again. His knuckles whitened, and then he abruptly stopped pushing at his nose to drop his arm and stare hard at Sam. “Yeah, I know. I thought—oh, Jesus. It’s that bad?”
Sam bit his lip. He looked down at his lap and saw his fingers twisting hard around each other, straining the joints till he could see the ends of the bones trying to hump themselves through his skin. He made himself stop.
“Hey,” Dean said. He’d let go of the door to shuffle further into the room. “Hey, are you going to be okay? Need a note to get out of class? Because that doctor from the thing with the stuff owes me—”
“He’s a prostate specialist, Dean. I think I’d rather borrow your gun and shoot myself in the foot,” Sam snorted. Maybe a little shaky laughing got into it, too. But that didn’t last too long before Sam was pulling his lips hard back against his teeth to keep from biting clear through them. “I started winter break yesterday, anyway. I told you.”
Dean blinked, going blank-faced in that way that meant he’d completely not been listening to Sam, though how he’d managed to do that for last week or so when Sam had been mentioning it at least once an hour was a miracle of inattention all by itself. After a moment, the incomprehension was replaced by hangdog guilt. “Oh. Right.”
“You know, if you don’t want to hear about school, you could stop asking.” Sam glanced at the clock again, then pulled off the blankets. He wasn’t going back to sleep any time soon, and if he and Dean were going to squabble over stupid shit to keep themselves from losing it, he might as well start up the computer. “I know you’re all busy bringing home the bread, and occasionally dragging Smecker out of confessionals when he’s plastered and the bishop calls…”
“Dude, stop being a bitch. I ask because I want to know. It’s just, y’know, you might not want to tell me when I’m trying to convince the landlord every FBI agent keeps a rack of rifles at home,” Dean shot back. His shoulders went back and his chin went up; he was starting to get riled. Then he paused and looked thoughtful. “Wait. If you don’t have school, then that means you can come in with me. Well, to the scene, anyway. After we pick up Paul.”
The first free time Sam had after a brutal semester in Harvard, and Dean was thinking he’d want to spend it chasing down what might be another demon while riding shotgun to Dean’s lunatic addict of a…partner. When that word could have two different meanings that’d apply to Dean and Smecker, and the one involving Smecker in a sexual sense just made Sam want to go back to Kansas and hide in the wheat fields. He freely admitted that he and Dean were freaks, but he liked thinking Dean was still sane. Or at least had taste that didn’t involve an attraction for a walking time bomb with a nasty sense of humor.
God knew what Dean was getting from Sam, but it at least looked like he was getting the part about Smecker equaling severe discomfort. “Look, you sit in the back and he’ll kind of forget about you after the first fifteen minutes. He’ll be ripping on me, believe me.”
Sam swung his legs over the side of the bed, then jerked his feet back up: the floor was freezing. He poked around till he found the dumb but ultra-warm bunny slippers Dean had given him last Christmas. “And then I actually have to hear about what you two do during your downtime. No offense, bro, but I don’t need to know you that well.”
“So what? You want to stay home and sit this one out?” Dean asked, abruptly belligerent. “You know it’s not just—”
“I know it’s not going away! I know we have to kill it! God! I’m the one getting its fucking wet dreams mainlined into my head! I’m the one Dad got himself killed over!” Sam snapped. He hadn’t taken a deep enough breath beforehand and was wheezing to get the last words out.
Though no one could’ve told from the way Dean flinched, went stony and wouldn’t meet Sam’s eyes for a moment. Sam grimaced to himself and rubbed his hands over his face, then down around his neck and over his shoulders. The muscle between his shoulderblades was already getting a tension cramp.
“Dad didn’t—” Dean started. Then he cut himself off, jerking around to stare at the window. The orange-yellow light from the streetlamps outside was cut into horizontal slashes by the blinds, layering Dean in some kind of strange camouflage pattern. He chewed on his lip for a moment before leaning back into the shadow. “It wasn’t your fault, Sammy. This one isn’t, either.”
“Probably should find out what it’s actually up to before we say that, shouldn’t we?” Sam muttered. He got off the bed and went to the closet to grab a shirt, keeping his back to Dean.
His brother tried to say something else a couple times, but it was late, and even when he did have enough sleep, Dean wasn’t exactly known for his timeliness with the right thing to say. Eventually he just stalked off, and a minute later a bunch of banging noises started up from the kitchen. Making breakfast was definitely more productive.
Sam finished pulling on his shirt, then pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes for a moment. Just a little harder and…though that wouldn’t do any good. He’d still dream.
* * *
“It’s Take-Your-Brat-To-Work Day, not—”
“He’ll just sit in the back and mess around with his fucking crayons, okay? Think of it as an extra pair of legs you can send for your goddamn coffee,” Dean snarled. He jerked open the door, threw himself behind the wheel and jerked shut the door like he was off to commit a tri-state killing spree.
For that matter, Sam was half-seriously thinking about starting his own massacre, starting with his brother. Crayons? Coffee? Okay, he was coming to keep people from getting killed, not to play scapegoat for when Smecker got Dean all worked up.
Smecker looked dead sober and dead mean today, dressed in the kind of suit that’d normally be in the boardrooms of Wall Street. He’d walked around to the passenger’s side, not limping too heavily today, but there he stopped, frowning. He seemed to be staring hard at something on the door handle.
It was a very, very cold day. The heater in Dean’s car was pretty good, but it’d still needed the whole commute over to work things up to a temperature where Sam wasn’t shivering, so he was understandably reluctant to move. But a few more seconds passed and Smecker was still standing there on the sidewalk with his coat flapping open.
Sam drummed his fingers on his knees for another moment, then started to lean forward. Dean reached for the door about a half-second sooner and got the door open first. “What?”
“I’m thinking, Dean.” There wasn’t even a need for Smecker to add the usual crack about how maybe Dean wasn’t so familiar with that state of being. It just was there in his voice, clear enough for even idiots to get.
Dean swallowed hard and slow, an angry flush starting in his cheeks. Still, he wasn’t jumping out to try and hit Smecker, so that was pretty damn restrained for him. “Yeah? I’m thinking I don’t want to haul you to a hospital for hypothermia.”
After another moment, Smecker curled his fingers around the edge of the door and pulled it the rest of the way open. A blast of cold whooshed in and over the top of the front seat to slap Sam in the face so he was reeling and off-guard when Smecker glanced at him. It was an oddly serious look.
The door closed. Smecker grunted as he settled himself down and buckled his seat-belt; he didn’t seem that safety-conscious, or that worried about state traffic laws. “You’re such a sweet guy, Dean. Nice to see you, Sam.”
“Really?” Sam couldn’t help saying.
Dean shot him a dirty look, as if the big brother was the only one allowed to be bitchy. Besides, it wasn’t like that would even make a dent in Smecker, who just laughed a harsh, short bark. “Personally speaking, it might be nice to spend one day where Dean can’t constantly nag about needing time to buy your shoes or drop off your forms or whatever. Professionally, I’d rather you were out of the fucking car. We aren’t the tourism bureau.”
That…was fair enough, Sam guessed. He had no idea how many felonies they were racking up right now, so he could see Smecker’s point of view. Objectively, anyway. Subjectively…all Sam could see of Dean right now were his ears and they were a brilliant red, though whether that was in irritation or humiliation was an interesting question.
“At least he put you in a suit—oh, God, tell me you aren’t packing,” Smecker said, starting to twist around. Just then, Dean peeled away from the curb and any self-respecting person would’ve turned back around; Smecker’s cane thunked into something and he held where he was. “Are you? Winchester, you dumbass redneck, did you give your brother a fucking—”
“No,” Sam answered, almost rolling his eyes. “God, we’re not stupid. And I’ve…gone along with Dean before. A couple times. I won’t embarrass you.”
Smecker turned back around, but Sam didn’t get the impression that was because the other man was convinced. “Jesus fucking Christ. This is about the combustion one, isn’t it?”
“The what?” Dean and Sam both snapped.
They went two and a half blocks before Smecker got around to answering, and by then Sam’s nerves were so tense he was seriously contemplating kicking the back of Smecker’s seat. The guy was a queen. It really was a wonder Dean had managed to keep himself from strangling the other man long enough to figure out he came with literal ghosts, let alone get into a…thing with him.
And when Smecker did speak, it was to ask a question of Dean: “Didn’t you check the circular? Your desk? Your email?”
“Well, excuse me if I was busy trying to carry your coffee and make sure you brought enough aspirin and had all the other shit you need to be remotely humanlike,” Dean muttered. He took the next turn a little roughly, and Sam actually was okay with that this time, because he felt similarly. “Okay, so what?”
For some reason, Smecker provided a straight answer this time. “Chuck Fort. Sixty-three-year-old, supervised a trucking depot, teetotaler but liked a smoke once in a while. He went into the men’s bathroom last night for one and somehow burned himself to death. If you believe the only witness, he caught fire and flambéed in less than a minute. His company’s interstate, which is why it’s Fed. And it’s weird, which is why it’s ours.”
The edge of a manila folder poked over Smecker’s left shoulder. He tipped it towards Dean, then changed his mind and flipped it into the back. After a moment, Sam took it and opened it up. The first thing he saw was a photo of a charred skull. The back of his throat was suddenly wet with thick, stinging acid and he had to put the file down and stare out the window.
“…another trade war starting up?” Dean was saying.
“That’s the official line. Fucking Christ, we’ve got gangs battling over plumbing and drywall and even goddamn landscaping. Almost makes me wish they’d just stuck to pimping, gambling and killing each other in bars.” Smecker exhaled loudly and trails of smoke began to curl back around his headrest. “I’ve got an idea about this homicide we’re going to. Just drop me off—I know the local boys—and pick me up for lunch.”
Sam cracked open his window. If he had to throw up, he’d rather it be over the photos than because of Smecker’s stinking cigarettes. Maybe he’d be cold, but…he slid his thumb beneath the top of the folder and slowly pushed it open again. A different kind of stench, a sweetish, burnt-meat kind, filled his nose and a strange heat suddenly scorched over his face, as if he’d leaned too close to a fire.
“And watch it with that one,” Smecker said. It took a moment for Sam to realize the other man had switched to address him, not Dean. “Fuck up an arson and not even God’s ever gonna be able to tell you what went down. And more importantly, the labbies will have a fit and shit all over, and that sure as hell doesn’t get a rise out of my dick.”
“Noted.” Except for the last part, which Sam was devotedly crossing the hell out of his memory.
With that, Dean pulled up to the curb and Smecker levered himself out. A couple cops were standing at the corner looking at them, so Sam stayed in the back, figuring he’d squeeze himself up front after they got rolling again. But a couple minutes passed and Dean just sat there. Sam finally poked his head over the seat to ask what the deal was, only to find Dean staring after Smecker with a weird conflicted expression.
Dean jerked his head slightly towards Sam, then turned forward again to shift into reverse. “Okay, let’s go. Which morgue is Chuck at?”
* * *
“Cool. Most guys, you know, they transfer like they’re running away from an ex-wife. Probably are,” Lucy snorted. She snapped on her other glove and nudged open the door to the cold room with her hip. “You’re the first agent I’ve met so far who’s kept in touch with his old partners.”
“Well, I just try to be friendly. Don’t know how they bring you up here, but out west we don’t see any shame in having lots of friends.” Dean smiled and leaned forward and basically just made the poor forensics lady think she was going to get a nice make-out session after they’d checked out the body. But it kept her from thinking about looking up this Agent Sam Colt—God, Dean was unimaginative—from the Kansas branch, so it had that much going for it.
The Boston morgue was bigger by miles, and that could actually be literal, than the small dingy Midwestern ones Sam was used to. It was all greenish-white fluorescence and stainless steel, and it felt honest-to-God sterile: the shadows were shadows, the smell was mainly chemical, and everything was scrubbed bare. Nothing lingered to tingle at the edges of Sam’s vision, or make the hairs on his arms stiffen. It…it was kind of creepy that way. With all the different kinds of deaths that passed through the place, it would’ve seemed more natural if a couple ghosts were hanging around.
“Thanks, hon. We’ll just be a sec—Sam here is going back home to his first arson case and he just wants a couple pointers,” Dean called over his shoulder. Someday he was going to break his face smiling like that; it was a wonder so many girls seemed to go for it.
Sam rolled his eyes and finished scanning around the room so his eyes landed on the sheeted body on the table in the middle of it. Then his skin drew up into taut goosebumps and he started to clench his teeth without quite knowing why. “Does Smecker know you butter up people like that?”
“Hell, he depends on it. God knows he’d have to spend twice as much time down here getting shit from them if I wasn’t around.” The smile wiped off Dean’s face as he turned back around. He went about the end of the table to the other side and bent down, then came back up with a clipboard. “Man, that son of a bitch is going to get me for not coming to the other scene.”
“He told you to leave,” Sam muttered, slowly easing up to his side of the table. He glanced down at his gloves, then flinched at himself for being paranoid enough to check for holes in those. He set his shoulders and slid his fingers beneath the sheet, carefully tugging it up.
Something beneath the sheet fell to the table with a muffled clink. Sam stopped, then resumed pulling once it was clear he hadn’t triggered any major collapses. The flat white gave way to a gnarled, blackish with patches of raw purple stump, which at first confused him since he’d taken this end for the head. Those…those looked like the ends of legs with no feet. Actually, those were--he dropped the sheet and moved down to the other end to uncover that, and saw a curved dome of charred bone.
“Yeah, he did, but that just tells me he’s really going to get me back.” Sound of a page being flipped. “He said he had an idea, which means he’s gonna walk into that scene and put it and three other homicides together, and then wrap up the case. Six weeks on that one, and I’m not going to see how it closes up.”
It wasn’t too bad to look at as bodies went: the flesh of the skull had almost entirely been burned away, so it was almost like Sam was looking at one of those anatomical displays. “Are you talking about how pissed off he is, or how pissed off you are?” he asked. Got a quick, glowering look of confusion darted at him over the body. “Because it’s not like anybody’s forcing us to do this.”
“Except for the fact that more innocent people will die if—” Dean cut himself off with a sharp exhale. Good thing, since that lecture, Sam had long since memorized. He looked away, his fingernails clicking irritably against the back of the board, then back at Sam. “All right, I’m pissed off, too. This—if this is what I think it is…and also I’ve been working my ass off trying to figure out that other string of shootings, and I want to know who it is. But never mind. What’ve we got?”
“Bone. You can’t do this in a minute with lighter fluid.” Sam leaned over and pulled the sheet up over the legs again. A couple bits fell off as he did and both of them winced. “Also, check it out: I think we’ve got whole-body incineration. Classic spontaneous human combustion is usually waist-up only.”
Dean made a face and wimped out, going back to scan the autopsy report. “They didn’t find any traces of any flammable fluids on him anyway. Witnesses who saw him earlier said he was wearing jeans and flannel, plus a heavy coat—the flannel would go up easy, but the rest wouldn’t, and there’s barely anything left of his clothes, either. Prelim guess: you’d need blast furnace temperatures to do this.”
Something else was funny, too. After a moment, Sam figured it out. He stared at the body for a moment, then braced himself and leaned down, closing his eyes. He stopped when he figured he was a couple inches above the corpse, then made himself take a whiff. “Any other elemental analysis on there?”
“Why?” When Sam looked up, Dean was helpfully making a gagging expression at him. “Gross, man. No wonder you can’t keep a girlfriend.”
Sam ignored the dumbassery and straightened up. He swallowed hard, rubbing at his eyes, and then swallowed again. “Because I think I smell sulfur in him. But he works in a trucking depot, so that could just be—”
Rapid page-flipping. Then Dean stopped, frowning. He cocked his head at the clipboard. “Second prelim guess: Chuck burned inside-out. Possible ignition points in the head and stomach, according to extent of the damage.”
Their mom—a sudden, sharp pain stabbed across the back of Sam’s left eye; he put up his hand and pressed against his left temple—that demon had started its fires around its victims. On the outside…his head hurt, and his stomach was cramping, and suddenly Sam just hated this so much. He hissed through his teeth and bent down, then grabbed the edge of the sheet. One flick of his wrist and the whole body was uncovered.
“Sam—Sam!” Dean jumped back to avoid the sheet as it billowed up, then took a fast, aggressive step forward. His hand was raised and its fingers were half-curled, but he slowly lowered it as he looked at Sam. “What?”
“I need some air,” Sam muttered, rubbing at his temples. “Can you get a check on the sulfur?”
After a moment, Dean nodded and started poking around himself; apparently there were metal trays or carts on that side, since Sam could hear soft clicks and clinks. “There’s aspirin in my coat pocket. You saw where I hung it, right?”
“Yeah.” Sam squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them. The thing on the table with its peeling charcoal bits of flesh and gray-black bones looked a little better than what he’d just been seeing in its place. “Yeah, sure. Meet you outside.”
* * *
Sam held the bottle of aspirin in his hand for a moment. Obviously Dean had had that around for Smecker; it’d been a long time since migraines had been that much of a problem for Sam. But it made him wonder a little about abnormal childhoods and how it might shape people. Fine, how it might have shaped Dean, and what kinds of dependencies it might’ve given him in order for him to feel really comfortable.
The pills were in plain hard white tablets. Gelcaps were what Sam preferred, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. He shook a couple into his palm, then got a paper cup of water from a nearby cooler and downed them with that.
The shrill jingle of a cell phone jittered through the air, making him jump and splash the last mouthful of water all over his face. He coughed and threw the cup into a trashcan, then did his best to rub off his face with his sleeve. God, who…Dean’s coat was shaking where it was on the wall. With a sigh, Sam dug out Dean’s cell and checked the ID. When he saw who it was, he glanced back into the other room, but Dean was busy talking to Lucy.
After a moment’s thought, Sam flipped open the cell and answered the call. “This is Sam. Dean’s busy, so could I—”
*I thought I said not to fuck with the fucking evidence. Take it you’re not majoring in anything requiring actual intelligence?*
Sam stood still and breathed through his mouth, since it was conveniently hanging open.
*Tell Dean to get his ass out of there and over here. One of our star witnesses just got jumped and knifed.*
Smecker hung up. For a few seconds, Sam just kept on holding the phone to his ear. Then he slowly shut it and his mouth. “Dean!”
* * *
“Two guys on the door, around the clock, and another one in that waiting area down the hall.” Hands on his hips, Dean walked about three yards to the left, basically crossing the viewing window. Then he spun on his heel and stalked back the same distance. Occasionally he’d raise a hand to his forehead and look deeply pained, as if he was Cassandra or something. “And I don’t want some fat old traffic cop you’re just trying to keep busy till you can kick ‘em out on their pension. Something happens again, they’d better be able to run the bastards down, knock them out and hogtie them.”
The police officer taking down Dean’s orders blinked. “Hog…tie?”
Sam slouched further down in his chair and started to lift his hand to cover his face. Honestly, Lawrence had been a pretty damn big city for Kansas, and it wasn’t like cable lines didn’t get out there. Sometimes he wondered if Dean had gotten sent off to a farm for a couple summers before he’d been born, because he had no idea where Dean got some of his expressions.
“Do you want me to demonstrate on you?” Dean snarled, stopping where he was. The whole elbows-out coat-flapping thing was very dramatic. “You know, seeing as you boys can’t move one fucking guy a couple hundred yards without a problem, and you don’t even have to deal with tornado season!”
“Translation: fuck up again and you’ll be sucking balls for the rest of your life,” Smecker said. He’d taken the surgeons off for a talk, and now somehow managed to swagger on his way back, even though it looked like his leg was cramping on him. Then he stopped and put his hand to his chest in exaggerated modesty. “Oh, no, not mine. I like my boyfriends disease-free, thank you.”
Pretty much everyone winced at that, including Dean and a couple passing nurses. Smecker didn’t even seem to notice and just dismissed the police officer with a limp wave. Then he rolled around to flick the same look up and down Dean. “‘Tornado season’? Way to show them you’re a sophisticated one, Dean. Surgeons said punctured lung; he’s not waking up till tomorrow night.”
Dean had opened his mouth to deal with the sarcasm, but got sidelined by the genuine information before he had a chance to think of a comeback. He ducked his head, exhaled, then dropped his hands from his hips and tipped back to lean against the wall. “Goddamn it. Well, so much for getting that one over before Christmas.”
“Shit happens. So does lunch, thankfully, or my morning would be completely ruined.” For some reason, Smecker looked up at Dean right then.
At first Dean didn’t notice. Then he did, but he didn’t get it. And then he did get it, and his jaw tightened and his hand went into a fist against his hip, but almost at once he loosened up to offer a half-wry grin. “You’re the nastiest son of a bitch I ever met, you know. I think the hospital special’s—”
“Do you or don’t you want me to get any other arson-homicide cases flagged for us? We’re goddamn organized crime, so it’s not like doing that’s going to earn me any popularity with the other departments,” Smecker said, lifting one eyebrow. He used his cane to pull over a chair, then practically collapsed into it. His hand went into his pocket, and then to his mouth. A second later, he was loudly chewing. “Italian sub shop across the street.”
“And I thought hatred was part of your natural diet. You know, like a little pep-me-up,” Dean snorted, already walking away.
Smecker didn’t respond. He put his head back against the wall; his eyelids came down like a lizard’s, strangely quick and without any emotion. He swallowed a couple times to get all the aspirin or whatever the hell he was on down.
Sam laced and unlaced his fingers a few times. With all the real law enforcement that’d been milling about, he’d just been trying to blend into the background, but things had pretty much settled down. There were still people moving around nearby, but they were all hospital staff or patients.
“Can you imagine what he’d be like if I didn’t fuck him around like that?” The other man’s eyes were still closed, but Smecker wasn’t relaxed into the chair. He had a white-knuckled grip on one chair-arm and was pushing hard into his bad leg with his other hand; Sam looked a little too long and a surprisingly intense flash of phantom pain in his own thigh had him hissing through his teeth. “Jesus Christ, he already pulls that drama queen shit whenever he gets a chance. I guess back in Kansas they kept him down because of the ghost deal, but Boston’s got too many crazies who’d believe him.”
“You just do that for Dean’s own good, huh.” Well, maybe the leg went some way to explaining why Smecker was how he was…and maybe Sam hadn’t been born yesterday. Talk about pot and kettle: he just didn’t get why Dean not only put up with it, but also seemed to like the shit he got from Smecker on some level.
Smecker finally opened his eyes, but just to roll them at the ceiling. He popped another pill while he was at it. By all rights he should’ve been checked into a detox ward ages ago—and Sam hadn’t even seen much of him—but maybe his liver was mutated, too. “No, obviously I enjoy it. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t do anything for him, and why don’t you ask me already? Then you can stop staring so hard and I can actually get a fucking nap.”
Sam opened his mouth, closed it. He considered his options, then opened his mouth again. “Why do you help out with our…” a balding man in a patient’s gown was slowly crossing the hall a few feet away “…hobby? You don’t seem to care much yourself.”
That seemed to startle Smecker a little. He sat up and gave Sam an odd look. Then he snorted and slumped again. “The crap you two chase during your free time kills people and destroys property, which does fall in my jurisdiction. What really confuses you is why I’m not jumping up and running around with you—well, I’m over fucking fifty and I have a full caseload without that shit. If somebody else is taking care of it, then I’m not the kind of idiot who fucks with what ain’t broke, sugar.”
“Don’t call me that,” Sam curtly replied. He resettled himself in his chair and buried his nose in the Fort file. At first it seemed like he could focus on anything except the words on the page: the rattling of a gurney down the hall, the clicks of shoes, the low murmuring of passersby, the goddamned sigh that came from Smecker’s direction once. But he kept trying, and eventually he managed to tune it out.
* * *
“Jesus!” Sam jumped high enough to make the chair’s feet tap-dance against the floor when he came down. Things fluttered and slipped through his fingers so he had to scramble to get them all back into place; in another second, they resolved into sheets of paper.
He looked up and Dean was leaning a shoulder against the wall beside him, a plastic bag steaming delicious odors swinging from one hand. Then Sam checked across the hall, but Smecker was gone. Two cops had appeared to flank the door to the witness’ room.
“You weren’t trancing again, were you?” Dean asked, voice low and hard and worried. “Because if that’s starting—”
“No. No, I just…was thinking.” Sam closed the folder and pushed it at Dean. “This Chuck Fort guy…it says the floor under him didn’t have any burn-marks. It was concrete, but still, there should’ve been…”
Dean kept eying him, not quite believing Sam. But in the end, Dean took the folder and traded it for lunch. “But that’s a hallmark of an SHC case.”
“This isn’t an SHC case,” Sam said. He paused to take a breath, then gave himself a shake. “I think. I think…we probably want to check his house.”
“Any particular reason why? That you can point out to me from the prelim reports?” Dean asked.
Sam sighed to stall for time and opened up the bag. A flood of aromas spilled out, warm and rich and God, he felt so sick. He hastily crumpled up the bag top again, but it was still coming out and he was going to puke—
--“That’s good food!” Dean snatched away the bag, then gingerly peeked inside. “Ew. Well, it was. Now it looks like roadkill.” He closed it up again and looked down at Sam. After a moment, his hand shifted in the air like it was thinking about touching the side of Sam’s head. “Hey, Sammy…”
“Let’s just check the house, okay?” Sam said. His headache was coming back. He checked his watch, but it’d only been an hour and a half, and he damn well wasn’t going to turn into a junkie like Smecker. He could deal. If Dean just would leave it for once, then Sam could deal.
Dean glanced around, then back at Sam. He pursed his lips, jiggled his leg, and finally took his hand away to poke in the bag again. “Okay. I get off at eight—I have to take you back now. This stabbing’s fucked up the whole day.”
“No, I’ll take the subway. I could use the walk.” Sam slowly pushed himself out of his chair, grimacing every time the pain in his head throbbed.
* * *
There were things in the subway. Cold spots, weird breezes, voices at the very edge of Sam’s hearing where there shouldn’t have been anything. Still, they were the kind of supernatural oddity he was used to. Mundane stuff that didn’t need too much stretching to get passed off as just his little quirk. A little salt, some memorized Latin, and he was good.
His head still hurt. He closed his eyes for one second—just one second—and he saw fire.
Sam’s eyes snapped open. He barely kept himself from leaping up and stared wildly around, but all he saw was a half-empty car full of people nodding to iPods or reading newspapers.
This was not getting the fucking better of him. He and Dean had a good, almost normal life here. Dean even seemed to care about his work here, and God knew he needed something besides the monster-hunting to keep him grounded.
Sam took a deep breath and closed his eyes again. Flames instantly leaped up, then just as quickly died away so he was staring at the dark insides of his eyelids. He kept his eyes closed for a little longer, but nothing happened. More than a little puzzled, he opened them; all he’d gotten was the fire, with no details as to place or any kind of context.
Something else happened when he got off: he thought he heard someone laughing. But the station was pretty crowded, so that might not have been anything. Still, once Sam was home, he spent the time making more salt cartridges.
* * *
Dean knocked again, then frowned at the door. “This Fort guy had a wife.”
“Maybe she’s over at relatives,” Sam suggested. He squeezed by Dean to press his ear to the door just as a woman came out of the stairwell. She immediately stopped to stare and he jumped back. “Oh, uh—”
“Agent Dean Winchester, FBI, ma’am,” Dean said, stepping in. He flashed his badge and his polite-boy smile at the same time, then nodded towards the door. “We were here to speak to Mrs. Fort about her husband’s death. Do you know if she’s in?”
The woman blushed a little and loosened up on her paper bag, which she’d been clutching to her like a shield. “Oh, but it’s so late.”
“Justice never sleeps, ma’am.” God, was Dean laying it on thick. Maybe Smecker had a point.
“We~ell…” After a furtive look about, the woman leaned in. “Actually, Tess and Chuck haven’t been on great terms lately. They had a terrific fight just two days ago and she left for her brother-in-law’s place.”
“No kidding,” Sam slowly said. One day before her husband was torched. He glanced at Dean and saw the same thoughts were running through Dean’s mind, too. “I think that’ll be all for here, thanks.”
* * *
Sam didn’t feel much like sleeping, so he stayed up and checked out the brother-in-law. Around six in the morning, Dean stumbled by and went on down the hall like usual to the bathroom. Then he stopped. He stood there for nearly two minutes before he turned around to squint at Sam. “Oh, my God. Don’t tell me you were up all night.”
“Brother-in-law owns part of the company, but Chuck had the majority share. And Tess has two sisters in town, so isn’t it weird she wouldn’t go to them?” Sam said, waving a handful of printouts.
Dean blearily blinked at him for a while longer. “Sammy,” he finally said, very slow and measured like he was talking to a child. “I can pull all that information at work in like, two seconds.”
“If Smecker ever gave you two seconds without taking it out of your hide later.” Sam finished getting out of the last database, then clicked on the program he used to fudge his tracks.
“Fuck Smecker, okay? Fuck him!” The violence of Dean’s voice swung Sam around to stare. His brother rubbed his hands over his head, then turned to look desperately at Sam. “What the hell’s wrong with you? What’s happening? I need to know or I can’t fix it, Sam.”
“I don’t—you know, you can’t fix goddamn everything,” Sam muttered, jabbing at the keys. Then he cursed and scrolled back up the screen to undo everything he’d just told the computer to do.
Dean snorted in disbelief. “Well, I can try, can’t I?” He stumbled down the hall, then banged up against something and cursed the rest of the way to Sam’s doorway. “Is it getting to you? Is it a demon—goddamn it, Sam, if you’re about to get killed, I’d like to know! Burying you after Dad would be a bigger problem than whatever the hell you think you’re doing me a favor by keeping from me!”
After that, silence fell like a knife blade. Sam flinched from it and knocked over his mouse, which swung over the edge of his desk to crash into the drawers a couple times. He tried to snatch it up and almost ended up pulling the whole laptop off, and that was when he decided he probably needed to sit back and not do anything for a couple moments.
“I keep telling you none of that was your fault. Someday you’re gonna realize I’m right,” Dean finally said. He sounded tired on a level that had nothing to do with the physical, though a little self-importance tried hard to lift the tone of his voice. “What is it?”
“I don’t think it’s a demon at all. I saw Fort die like I was there…but not like—like it usually works, when I’m floating around and just getting snapshots. Things moved around like I was seeing it—like I was a person and watching it.” Sam tried to pick up his mouse again. This time he got it without messing up anything else, and put it back on his desk. “I think it’s a person.”
“Like…that movie with baby Drew Barrymore?” Dean asked. He made a noise expressing a cross of disbelief and disgust. Then he turned and sort of let himself fall against the side of the door; his head made a soft thump when it hit the wood. He winced, but didn’t push away. After a moment, he pulled up his arm over his head and pressed that horizontally across the frame. “Shit. I’m gonna have to talk to Smecker. If there’s a chance we’re arresting anybody or whatever…but okay, why does this have you freaked? We’ve had psychos before.”
The computer popped up a message at Sam saying it’d finished running all routines. After a moment, he put his hands back over the keyboard and started shutting it down. The fan had been running…for a while now, he realized…and he’d rather it didn’t burn out on him again. “Because I get these weird echoes from whoever’s doing it. And you remember, the demon said I wasn’t the only kid.”
Dean slid his arm down so he was resting his forehead on that instead of on the doorframe. He squeezed his eyes shut. “Is the brother-in-law married? Any kids?”
“The brother-in-law’s not married. But he and Fort were orphans—their parents died saving them in a tragic house fire years ago, when the guy was only a baby. Fort was three years old,” Sam said after a moment. “They were adopted out to different families afterward.”
“Well, you aren’t tossing around fireballs yet, are you?” Awkward pause. Then Dean pushed off the doorway completely and took a step back into the hall. “Okay, bad joke. But you’re not him, Sammy. And you’d better go to sleep now if we’re going over there to get the guy tonight.”
It sounded like Dean had gotten himself all convinced and found his happy place again. Sam didn’t ever think he could go after his own family, but all kinds of other possibilities could rear up their ugly heads in the future. Accidents, possessions…little habits he had now that might lead to trouble later, so he couldn’t be so sure. Even after years of having ‘normal’ lives, he was still picking out differences between him and Dean and the rest of the world. He desperately wanted everything to go well now, wanted the past to be the past, but could they ever really get over it? He had no idea, and he didn’t know who would know.
* * *
When Dean came home, he brought Smecker with him, and Smecker didn’t seem particularly happy about it. Which was odd, since as far as Sam could tell, Smecker normally made it very easy to know when he was not happy with something. But the most the other man said between showing up on the doorstep and then getting back in the car with them was when Dean was double-checking that they had everything in the trunk; Smecker glanced in, blinked and then said: “If you ever got caught in the slums without your badge, they’d think you were with the goddamn IRA.”
“So I’m covered either way, huh,” Dean grunted.
“Depends on which side of the fucking war they’re on, doesn’t it? God, Dean. It’s called CNN, and I know they get it even in Hayseed, Kansas.” Then Smecker had stalked around to the shotgun seat.
The brother-in-law lived in a relatively large two-story in one of the suburbs. The lights on the top floor were still on, so Dean parked in front of the neighboring house. He unbuckled himself, looking back to see if Sam was ready. He was reaching for the door handle when a trace of Guinness wafted through the car and the hairs on the back of Sam’s neck started to prickle; Dean jerked to a stop so roughly that he rattled the handle.
“Jesus Christ,” Smecker snarled beneath his breath. There was a click, a brief glow and then the smell of cigarettes completely wiped out the other smell. “You’re going in to set up a time to take a statement from Mrs. Fort. You’re not starting any wars, and God help me, if you get me locked down in a standoff here I’ll cut off your fucking dick, pickle it and keep it on my fucking desk for a paperweight.”
Dean snorted and resumed getting out. Sam waited for his brother to get out of the way, then opened his door. “If you’re so worried, you could just come in with us.”
“Thanks, Sam, but quasi-legal home invasions aren’t my kind of party,” Smecker drawled.
He seemed cosy enough, so Sam didn’t bother trying any more and just went after Dean. “Why’d you bring him?”
“Because if we have to manipulate evidence, we’d have to get him down anyway. You getting anything yet? Should I go back for the shotgun?” Dean asked, standing on the very edge of the front porch. He put his hand on a support pole and leaned back to stare at the upstairs windows. “Kind of quiet for seven o’clock, isn’t it?”
“Maybe they’re Luddites.” Sam never really had figured out how to manage whatever it was that let him get flashes off things or places. They seemed to come whenever they wanted, so he mostly just braced himself and hoped they wouldn’t be too bad. But he wasn’t getting anything in particular from this house, aside from the tightness in his shoulders and hands he always got before they were going to confront something.
Dean exuded an uncomprehending silence. After a moment, he muttered a ‘whatever’ and crossed the porch to ring the doorbell. He stuck his hand back in his pocket and tapped his toe; one of the floor planks was loose and kept rattling long after he’d struck it. The sound covered up any approaching footsteps so they both jumped at the sound of the door opening. Dean’s hand jerked to the inside of his coat, then withdrew more slowly so it had the badge up just as whoever it was cracked open the door. “Hi…Mr. Dee? I’m Dean and this is Sam, and we’re agents from the FBI. We’re here to speak with Mrs. Fort.”
“Tess?” Dee said, confused and a bit wary.
The corner of Dean’s mouth twitched, like it usually did when he had to lie his ass off. “She’s not in trouble, sir. We’re investigating the death of her husband and we just need to speak with her for a moment. It’s just routine.”
The whole scene shifted slightly so Sam started a little. He frowned, staring at the wall beside the door, then realized the shadows had abruptly darkened and expanded: someone had turned off a light. Sam glanced back at the other two to find Dean on the verge of entering. “Damn, I left the forms in the car,” he said, nodding at Dean. “Let me just go get them—you go ahead.”
“Well…all right. Just knock again when you’re back,” Dee doubtfully replied.
Dean stared a warning at Sam, then reluctantly followed the other man inside. Sam took his time going down the steps so that when the door closed, he’d just hit the bottom. He waited a moment, listening for any lingering, and then made a hard right and went around the corner.
The back of the house had a big second-floor balcony built nearly all the way across it and linked up to the first-floor veranda with a staircase. There were six windows, and two of them were lighted. One went off as Sam watched, then slowly went on again…no, the haze was only in a corner of the window. A candle, maybe. He put his foot on the deck and eased his weight onto it, then took a step towards the staircase. The wood loudly creaked.
A woman’s face suddenly appeared in the window with the glow. She and Sam stared at each other for a long moment, something pushing between them. Then she whirled away and Sam lunged for the staircase, not quite sure what she was doing but knowing that it wasn’t harmless.
Halfway up, he heard yelling coming from somewhere on the first floor. He ignored it and kept on going. The moment he hit the top of the stairs, he went for the window and stepped in a puddle of something, which sent him skidding nearly into it. One of his hands hit the wooden siding, while the other smacked into the glass. Inside somebody gasped.
The reflections of the trees that obscured the window abruptly slipped away as Sam jerked himself around, revealing the woman on her knees on the floor, hunched over something. He hit the glass and her shoulders shook, but she hurried on with whatever she was doing. A yellow tongue of fire flicked up between her fingers, and that was enough: Sam backed up, grabbed a deck chair and smashed it into the window.
“What the hell—God, the pain--”
A shard of glass snagged his sleeve as he hopped in over the sill, then fell to the carpet. Mrs. Fort had flung herself back and now was propped up on her arms, staring wide-eyed at him; Sam’s eyes went to the floor before her…and a smoldering little thing that at first he couldn’t clearly see. Then he could: a crude cloth doll.
He looked back at Mrs. Fort. In the hall, someone fell to the ground, moaning and groaning about a pain in the chest…which was right about where the doll was burning. Her eyes narrowed slightly, and then she pushed herself over and snatched up the doll to frantically beat at it.
“Freeze! Drop whatever it is you’re doing!” Dean shouted. The door burst open and he lunged into the room, gun out. At first he leveled it at Sam, but then he recognized who it was and swung around to Mrs. Fort.
She stopped where she was, though the flame on the doll hadn’t been completely put out. “I have to—”
“Tess?” gasped somebody else. There was a series of uneven knocks, like somebody banging his shoulder against the wall, and then Dee fell through the doorway next to Dean, clutching his chest. He choked hard and Dean looked down, but Dee was staring straight at Tess and Sam could see the exact moment when the other man understood. A black rage came over Dee’s face.
The air in the room suddenly was leaden and heavy, making Sam’s ears pop. He grabbed at his head and staggered away just as Mrs. Fort hissed something and snatched up a little shiny thing from the floor. A lighter, which clicked loudly as she put it to the doll. Dean’s head came back up and he opened his mouth to yell; at his feet, Dee’s face twisted into an inhuman snarl.
“Dean! Get away from him!” Sam shouted. He hit his hand against the wall, then pushed himself around just as a ferocious spout of hot air whooshed up before him, followed almost instantly with a wall of fire. It was so intense he could barely make out Mrs. Fort beyond it, writhing and screaming.
“Sam! Outside!” Dean wasn’t in the room anymore from what Sam could see, but that wasn’t much. Another screaming column of fire was blocking the doorway, and in the few seconds he watched, the flames from it licked up to the ceiling so the plaster blistered and popped like gunshots.
Then Sam was stumbling through the window, coughing and gagging on the oily black smoke. Pain stung his hands a few times—he forgot about the broken glass—but then he was through, and at the staircase. He grabbed onto railing and turned around for a last—but the whole floor was up. It was a total loss. It…
“Jesus Christ! Come on!” Something yanked at Sam’s elbow and pulled him off his feet. He fell hard into Dean, but by some miracle his brother kept his balance and got them off the staircase. They lurched out into the center of the backyard, still a little too close, but Dean’s feet slowed and Sam hadn’t been doing much about walking, anyway. It just…was too much of a reminder.
* * *
“Forget Buffy. At this rate, they’ll be calling your brother Bruckheimer for all the fucking property damage. I think the fire marshal was the one government guy in Boston who didn’t have it in for me,” Smecker said.
He and Sam were watching people scurry around the burned-out shell of Dee’s house from the far corner of the street, where Sam was pretending to be just another stunned passerby. No point in getting Dean into more trouble for bringing his brother along on an official visit. As far as Sam could tell, Smecker had come over because he wanted to drink his coffee and have a smoke and monologue without being interrupted. Dean was over by the house, in the thick of all the goings-on, and it didn’t look like he’d be free for hours.
“John Dee wasn’t married and didn’t have any kids. Since the poor fucks were orphans, there weren’t any other close relatives, so Tess Fort stood to inherit both brothers’ shares of the company if they died. She also had dated John first, then moved on to Chuck.” Smecker blew out a stream of smoke at the sun rising over the trees. He barely avoided knocking the ash off his cigarette into his cup. “Your turn.”
Sam glanced at the other man, then looked off at the burnt, twisted pieces of wood sticking up from the brown, winter-burned grass. He figured he probably didn’t need to explain much to Smecker, who seemed to know a lot about a lot. “Tess was using poppetry. She killed Chuck, then was planning on doing John tonight, but we interrupted. John had a fire-starting gift, or something, and torched her right back when he found out, but he accidentally got the doll, too.”
That had been easy enough to figure out. Working out why Sam had been getting echoes from John took a bigger leap of faith, since he couldn’t exactly ask the man about his motives and the extent of his involvement now, but if he assumed Tess and John had been working together, and then there’d been a double-cross…
“Explains why his company’s got a spotless fire record and got away with paying next to nothing for heating,” Smecker commented. He dragged on his cigarette so the trails of smoke laced into the frosty clouds of breath coming from both of them. “No demon necessary. Just people being greedy bastards.”
Sam blinked, then looked more closely at the other man. “What?”
“Dean.” Somehow Smecker not only packed a load of explanation into that one word, but also managed to inflect it so Sam felt like an idiot for not guessing himself. “Look, Sam, if the supernatural crap was really the key to everything, then it wouldn’t be worth doing a goddamn thing to stop them. So it’s not. It comes down to the human part of the equation.”
“I’m not going to last more than another ten years the way I am. Which is perfectly fine, since sixty-five’s when they can legally boot my sorry ass out anyway. That should make you feel better; Dean’ll still be only in his mid-thirties, and then he can move on to somebody who’s not old and fucked-up and who gives a shit.” Smecker ducked his head and laughed so dryly it might as well have been humorless. He stuck his cigarette between the fingers of his coffee-cup hand, then reached into his pocket for an aspirin. “My mother got drunk and chased the pretty lights off a balcony when I was ten. My father stuck around till I was twenty-three.”
It didn’t come out like Smecker was looking for a pity party. He just stated the facts like he was reading off a script, so it took a moment for Sam to even come up with a guess as to where the other man was going with this. “But Fort and Dee…their background reads like—”
“Big fucking deal. Dee was into fratricide, apparently. He’s got more in common with me than you, and it’s got nothing to do with what some damn thing with horns and a pitchfork did to him, and everything to do with the fact that at some point in our lives, we both decided to be fucking bastards to people,” Smecker snorted. He finished his cigarette and dropped it to grind it out on the sidewalk, then drained his coffee. “It’s not possible to keep things out of your head—all those fucking voices and flashes and whatever—but there’s this thing called selective repression. Very popular with the general population. You might want to try using it.”
With that, he picked up his cane and started off again. It wasn’t more than a couple yards before he was ripping strips off a passing cop, and Sam still wasn’t sure exactly what Smecker could do, but there definitely wasn’t mistaking what the man would do. And what he wouldn’t, though Smecker worked hard at making that less obvious.
He made it sound so damned easy and logical, like no one else had ever thought of that before. Ignoring wasn’t that simple when it—then again, that hadn’t been his main point. That’d just been the snappy parting words that he and Dean couldn’t goddamn leave before throwing those over their shoulders. The dictionary probably had his picture next to the definition for ‘dick.’
But he kept Sam thinking for a while, right up till Dean finally came over to give Sam a ride home.
* * *
“Law school?” Dean paused halfway through taking down the salt. “What, like Matlock?”
“No, like federal prosecutor.” Sam poked at the top of the steak. Still too much give, so he hung back and got ready to wait for another two minutes or so. “Sooner or later Smecker’s going to retire, you know, and it’s not like you can scare people into doing things for you like he does.” He sensed Dean’s retort coming and rolled his eyes. “It’s not about how you bitch at them—it’s about how you outlast them. That’s why they’re scared of him.”
The cabinet closed with a faint thud. A moment later, Dean was leaning in front of Sam to sprinkle more salt on his steak. “Yeah, I know. I just…I’m having a hard time seeing you in a courtroom. No offense, Sammy. I mean, if this is what you want to do…”
It was about people. It was about him, and he wasn’t going to let it go the wrong way. He wasn’t sure if this way would work for that, but he couldn’t get entirely away from it, and he couldn’t go up against it every day—not if he wanted to avoid turning into a bitter, cynical old asshole. So for now, he’d try it and see how it turned out, and if it didn’t work, he’d try something else. He’d find his own equilibrium sometime.
“…y’know, you wanna back me up so badly, then why not join the agency?” Dean was saying.
Sam hesitated, then snorted as he flipped the steaks. “It’s not backing you up so much as keeping you out of trouble, man.”
“Rrauw.” Dean pawed at the air like a cat as he leaned back. “Excuse me? You’re the one who’s always needing to get dragged out of places.”
“Whatever. Get some plates ready, ‘kay?” It’d work somehow. They’d make it work. They’d seen how others had screwed things up, and they weren’t going to get burned the same way. That was how they’d keep the ghosts out of their lives.