The Wonder Of Each Hour
Destina Fortunato

I. Bren

Dean helped her up off the cold black asphalt just outside of Quiet Creek, Virginia. Blood trickled from the side of her mouth; she smeared it with the back of her hand, and her glance strayed from his face to the two things he'd killed in mid-attack not ten feet from her. She wasn't shaking, though, and her legs seemed steady enough, so Dean let her stand on her own two feet.

"Thank you," she said, blinking back stunned tears. He guessed she was maybe on the high side of thirty-five, dark blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, the knees of her jeans wet and dirty from where she'd hit the ground.

He reached out and gently pulled her shirt down, covering her stomach. "What's your name?" he asked, wiping sweat out of his eyes.

"Brenda. Baldwin. I'm...Bren." Disorganized thoughts; Dean had seen it a hundred times. Not many people could keep a cool head after being thrown down and almost eaten. She heaved in a deep breath. "Who are you?"

"I'm Dean," he said. These days, he didn't give a last name unless he had to. Sometimes he had trouble remembering what name Dad was using and which cards were expired. He was going to have to start tracking it more carefully, now that he was hunting on his own more often.

Bren looked down the road in both directions, eyes a little wild in the chilly moonlight. It was after 2a.m., and Dean had no idea why she was out there on the road herself, but it didn't matter much. "There's nobody else around," he said, though he wasn't sure if that would reassure or scare her. For all she knew, she'd just gone from the critter frying pan into the serial killer fire.

"No, I..." She took another deep breath and let his hand go. "My car broke down a mile up the road. I was walking back into town to spend the night with a friend. Easier than her getting dressed for such a short drive, it... I'm sorry, I'm just babbling." She cut herself off, and the next thing Dean knew, she was sitting down hard on the ground.

He crouched down next to her to take a closer look. Maybe one of those things had gotten its teeth into her. "You hurt?" he asked, one hand on her elbow.

"No." She looked up into his eyes, a half-smile on her face. "But I think I'll just sit here a minute. Okay?"

"Yeah." He smiled at her and patted her arm, then stood up. There really was no one on the road. "I'm just going to..." He waved at the furry things he'd shot.

"Right." For a moment, he expected her to whip out a cell phone and call the cops, or tell him to, but she just drew her legs up under her and closed her eyes. So he went to work, dragging the corpses off the side of the road to roll them down into the ditch running parallel to the road itself. He really didn't know what they were - Dad might know; he'd have to describe them carefully - but not much could survive a good old-fashioned burning, so he wanted to make sure they went up in flames before one of them suddenly revived and scared the crap out of poor Bren.

He snagged some lighter fluid from the trunk and doused them with it, and when he tossed the match, Bren got up from the ground and came to stand beside him. She didn't say a word while she watched the flames lick up, sudden heat and the smell of burning hair surrounding them.

It took about ten minutes for the fire to start dying, eating its way into the twigs and debris around it. The ground was so wet Dean wasn't worried about the nearby brush catching. He turned to look at Bren; her face was dirty, but her nose had stopped bleeding. He swiped a thumb over her cheek, scraping blood away from her lip. "You need to get cleaned up. I'll take you home."

"There's a diner in town," she said. "Open all night. Can I buy you a cup of coffee?"

Her voice wavered, so gave her his best smile. "Coffee sounds great," he said. "I'll buy." Not like he had anything waiting for him in the hotel room but two warm beers and a half-empty bag of Cheetos. Bren retrieved the spilled contents of her purse from the road, and they were off.

The diner was as all-American as they come, set low against the backdrop of single-story shops and looming mountains behind. Dean was at home the moment he walked through the door and saw the woman behind the counter frown at Bren. "Good lord, Brenda, what the hell happened to you?" she said, coming around the counter. There was no one else in the place, which was just as well, because her accusing gaze was fixed on Dean like laser lights.

"Nothing, Gina." Brenda smiled at Gina and waved her off. "I had a little accident at the roadside. This fella brought me back to town."

"Well, that was neighborly," Gina said, and Dean knew by the way she eyeballed him that she didn't believe it for a hot second. "You want to go wash up, sweetie?"

"I really want some coffee," Bren said. "And some for Dean, too."

"And a piece of pie. Apple, if you've got it," Dean added, piling a sugar-sweet heap of charm on top of his smile. The suspicious lines of Gina's face eased down from high alert, but she wasn't sold. Yet.

"Sure thing," she said, backing up toward the counter.

Bren ducked her head for a moment, then nodded toward the ladies' room. "I'll be right back," she said, and as she headed away, Dean noticed for the first time that she was limping. Hard to say if that was something old, or something new.

He slid into a booth at the far side of the counter, facing the door. He was already twitchy, away from Dad for three days and several hundred miles between them. His cell had been vibrating for the last couple hours, and he was going to catch hell for not answering it. Ever since Sam had bailed out for Stanford, Dad was pretty harsh about Dean checking in on side trips. It was weird; he had more freedom, and Dad trusted him more, but the leash seemed shorter anyway. Not that it was really Sammy's fault. There was a lot he could blame Sam for, the selfish asshole, but this wasn't one of those things.

By the time Bren came back, two cups of coffee and two pieces of pie had been delivered, and Gina hadn't even scowled when she set them down. Bren scooted in opposite Dean and in the harsh light, he revised his estimate of her age. Forty, maybe, though she could pass for younger with makeup on and the right clothes. She didn't seem like the type who cared, though. She'd washed her face, and she didn't seem as pale as he'd expected.

When she spotted the pie, she gave Dean a questioning look, but Gina solved that problem. "Eat something, you'll feel better," she called from the counter, and Bren picked up her fork with a smile.

For a few minutes, they ate in silence, Bren giving Dean curious glances, and Dean guzzling down the hot coffee like Popeye eats spinach. Her pie was half-eaten when his was gone, and he put his feet up on the seat beside her, scrunching down to make himself fit in the small space under the table.

She put her fork down and said, "You were looking for those things, weren't you?"

Most of the time, Dad didn't stick around long enough for people to get over the shell-shock and start asking questions. And if they did, he didn't answer, would give them a lot of bullshit about right place, right time and all that jazz. For some reason, though, in this café, with warm coffee and gratitude hitting him just right, Dean thought that philosophy might be a little wrong. "I'd heard about some attacks in the woods," he said, deciding that a partial truth was owed. "So I was scouting around. You know, seeing what I could find. If I could help."

"You got some kind of expertise in...whatever those were?" Her smile was gentle, but the questions were like direct jabs in the chest.

"Everybody's got their expertise," he said. "What's yours?"

"You ever give a straight answer?"

"You ever ask a question that doesn't start with 'you'?"

Bren pushed a few apples around on the plate and smiled. "My expertise is in books. I'm a librarian."

"Wow, exciting," Dean said, and that produced a laugh from her, sort of a snorting chuckle that made her look less tired.

"I specialize in straight answers," she said.

"You're one of those people who stand under the little information sign, right?"

Just then Gina materialized with more coffee, and Bren waited until she'd poured and stepped away before she said, "Pretty much. So you saved the world from a dearth of trivia by saving me."

"Guess that's a good deal, then," Dean said.

Bren dug down into her purse, and now, finally, her hands were shaking. Just a little, but they were in a warm place, safe now, and Dean knew it was okay. She pulled out a business card and wrote something on the back with a cheap ball point pen. "I think I owe you one," she said softly. "Or maybe a hundred."

"Nah, you-"

"No, I do. So if you ever need answers, please call me." She handed the card to him, and he took it, feeling weirdly like he was betraying something about himself by doing so. "My cell number's on the back."

"Thanks," he said, smiling at her. He tucked the card in his front shirt pocket and watched as she put eight and change down on the table. "I'll get that," he said, and pushed the money back across the table to her, fished out a ten from his wallet. "You be okay here?"

"Just fine," she said. "You take care, Dean."

When he looked back through the diner window, she was watching him go, one hand lifted to say goodbye.

He didn't call her for almost a year - forgot all about her, in point of fact, and couldn't remember her name when he started burrowing around in his duffel looking for the card. It only came up because Bobby was on a hunt and Caleb didn't answer his phone, and Dad was pissed off and in need of some answers. He dialed her cell because it was nine at night, and when she answered, he said, " Uh, Brenda? Hi, it's Dean Win-uh, the guy who helped you last year, on the road, remember?"

"Of course I do," she said, sounding for all the world like she was glad to hear from him. "What can I do for you?"

"Can you research a symbol for me?" he asked, sure for a moment she'd say no, but she didn't even break stride.

"Let me get a pencil," she said, and that was that.

He called her more often after that, on everything from alchemical keys to magical script. It got so sometimes Dad would try the usual sources and then say, "Give Bren a call," and Dean tried to pretend he wasn't proud he had scrounged up his own contact, but the shit-eating grin probably gave him away. Sometimes he'd chat with Bren for a little while, giving her some background on whatever they were chasing. Not too much, but hell, she had to know by now that his job wasn't the kind spent standing under signs.

Toward the fall of '03, he called and got no answer, and that was weird. She always answered for his number, even in the middle of the night. He tried the next day and she answered, but she sounded tired, like he'd yanked her out of a dead sleep, though it was only ten in the morning where she was.

"Everything good?" he asked her, and she gave him that little chuckle.

"Just ducky," she answered. "What do you need?"

He described the symbol, and she popped off with ten different meanings, and he said, "God, I love you, Bren," and she laughed out loud, the sound of it the best thing since homemade apple pie.

"Let me know how it goes," she said, and he promised he would.

Only when he tried, some guy he'd never spoken to answered her phone, and told him Brenda was dead, bone cancer, metastasized from her hip, and who the hell was Dean, anyway, and why was Dean calling his wife?

Dean sat without moving for a long time after he cut off the tearful questions, and looked at her name in his phonebook. In the end, he never deleted her name. It was easier to pretend she was still there; he hadn't known how much she mattered to him until she wasn't there at all.

II. Christian

If there was a worse place to be stuck than Trefoil, Illinois, Dean didn't want to know about it. It was a town so tiny and sleepy, the locals' idea of 'fun' was akin to watching paint dry or cars rust. There were only two bars Dean could find, one of which wasn't even open on Sundays.

It was bad enough that Dad was laid up and crankier than a grizzly bear just coming out of hibernation, but on top of that - the Impala was shot full of holes, courtesy of a couple of spirit-possessed American Gothic mom-and-pop farmers who were armed to the teeth. She was running sluggish, and he didn't dare take her on the open highway. Not even to get away from Dad, whose shoulder wasn't healing right. Dislocation and an untreated gunshot wound didn't go well together. Not that Dad would admit it, or see a doctor, or anything that would expose them to curious looks.

After two weeks, Dean had had enough of playing nurse bitch. When he snarled as much at Dad, his father levered up from the couch and headed toward him, and Dean made a run for it. Even with one arm out of commission, Dad could still kick his ass.

There was a garage up the street, and Dean needed a place to work on his girl. Couldn't hurt to take her in, check it out, see if he could work a deal; maybe he could work part-time for time-share on a lift after closing. He was pretty handy with tools.

When he drove her up to the curb, half the mechanics came out to look at her like some beauty queen had just materialized wearing only a smile. Dean patted the dash. "Don't mind them, baby. They're just jealous."

The one that broke from the pack was a tall guy, about Dean's age, wiping his hands on a dirty pink rag. "Hey," he said, stuffing the rag in his back pocket.

"Hey," Dean said easily, offering up a half smile. "There somebody I could talk to about getting some work?"

"I can help you out," the guy said. He stuck out his hand. "Christian Lee."

Dean could feel his eyebrow trying to lift, but he shoved it back down with the power of his mind. "Aren't you kind of young to be running things?"

Christian pointed to the sign above the garage bay doors: Lee and Sons. "I'm the sons."

"Ah." Dean nodded, stared at the sign for a long moment, then cleared his throat. "Listen, I need tools, and a place to work on my car. I'm good with cars - real good, actually. I could work for you, in exchange for tools and a workspace."

"You a rated mechanic?" Christian asked, looking Dean right in the eye. It ran contrary to all his usual suspicious leanings, but Dean liked him immediately, even if he knew he should be wary of it. He was so damned tired of lying and trying to keep his stories straight that there was some appeal to telling the truth, for once.

"Nope. But I know enough to be one. Gimme a shot and I'll prove it."

Christian nodded, his hair curling across his forehead. "I need one guy to cover weekday afternoons. I'll start you out slow, on easy jobs. You do those right, I'll pay you the standard hourly I give all the new guys."

"What about-"

"You can work on her after hours." Christian stuck out his hand again. "Deal?"

When Dean shook his hand, he wondered why Christian hadn't asked him for references, or work history; he hadn't even asked his name. But Christian's handshake was firm and sure, and Dean still liked him, so he was going to give it a try. Dad could fend for himself for a while.

Dean handed his father some pain pills and a glass of water along with the news, then took the long, scrutinizing stare Dad gave him without flinching. "I don't think this is a good idea," he said, voice rough. Dean looked at the dark circles under his eyes and thought about how much cash he might need to pay some country doctor to clean out that wound, but he didn't mention that.

Instead, he took the empty glass and refilled it, and said, "Gotta get the car fixed, pay for groceries. No big deal."

The fact that Dad let it go said more than any argument he could ever have tried, and that was that.

The first week was rough.

Sure, Dean had picked up day jobs here and there, usually hard labor for quick pay, no W-2s or Social Security numbers. This was different, though. He had to be on time, which was no problem, but he had a fixed level of work to do, and it was just...different. But he loved getting his hands dirty, getting under hoods and chasses and figuring out what had gone wrong, and it was as good as any job would ever get. He took breaks with the rest of the guys, and learned their names - Mike, the guy with four kids who worked almost every day just to keep them fed; Carl, the single guy working his way through college by summer labor; Paulie, the little fat guy whose hands worked magic on any engine ever made.

Evenings, he put the Impala up on a vacant lift and tinkered with her, looking over all her parts while he had the chance, cleaning, scraping, replacing as needed. He paid for all the parts out of his wages, which Christian mysteriously gave him in cash, even though he saw the other guys get checks. Sometimes he'd go home near midnight and find Dad waiting up for him, a book in his lap. It was weird to see Dad reading things that had nothing to do with research. Unsettling, even.

"Good day's work?" Dad would ask, and Dean would smile, get himself a beer from the fridge, conscious of the grime under his fingernails and the grease all over his shirt, and then he'd smile all the way down to his core.

"Yeah," he'd say. "Got a lot done on her today." Those nights, he made dinner in the one pan they had - stews and soups, mostly, or hamburgers burned to a crisp, the way Dad liked them - and watched while Dad ate, slowly, finishing less than half of whatever Dean served him. Then he'd nod, and push up from the hideous brown rent-a-flop couch, pat Dean on the shoulder, and head to bed.

Sometimes Dean sat up on the couch-that-doubled-as-bed, listening to his father breathing softly in the next room.

It was in the third week that a tap on his shoe brought Dean out from under a customer's car to find Christian standing there, two Cokes in his hands and a grin on his face. "What?" Dean said, sliding all the way out to sit up and take the Coke.

"You've been doing a good job," Christian said. He sat down beside Dean, leaning back against the car. "Just thought I'd say thanks."

"Told you," Dean said, smug, and took a long swig of his Coke.

They sat in companionable silence for a while, until two things registered with Dean: one, that the place was deserted, and hence it was after six; two, he hadn't noticed. "Wow," he said, scratching the back of his neck. "Guess it's past quitting time."

"Yeah. I notice you don't pay a lot of attention to that," Christian said. He stretched his legs out in front of him and crossed them at the ankles. "You always been a workaholic?"

"What can I say, man? I move to the beat of a different drummer."

"Poetic," Christian said, and his grin widened. "And really fucking clichéd."

Dean snorted, and let his head fall back to rest on the car. "Thanks for the soda. And the hint."

"Nah, I really do appreciate all the work." Christian checked his watch. "I actually came out here to offer to buy you a beer. You think you can break away from your busy schedule?"

"Pretty sure," Dean said. He drained the rest of the Coke.

Christian took him to the dive about five blocks from the garage, where the waitresses were hotter than red-hot things - especially one sweet little number in a red halter top and knee-high boots -- and the pool tables were manned by total amateurs. It was exactly Dean's kind of place, except for one thing: the music.

"Man, what is that crap they're playing?" Dean asked, his face wrinkled up in torment.

"Death Cab for Cutie."

"What the fuck?" Dean said, and burst out laughing. "What the hell kind of name is that for a band?"

"An awesome one?" Christian suggested, one eyebrow raised.

"Ah, hell no." Dean eased off the bar stool and went to find the jukebox. "Get some shots, man. I'll be back."

Five minutes later, Ozzy was blasting out of the speakers and the slutty chick with the boots had stuffed her number in Dean's back pocket, and he was starting to feel human again for the first time in weeks. He matched Christian shot for shot on tequila, and grinned when Christian choked a little. Sam was the same way; never could really hold his liquor.

The thought threw him, put the tension back in his shoulders. He'd been doing really well at not thinking about Sam, not missing him, but it didn't take much. He was pretty sure Sam didn't waste two seconds thinking about either him or Dad, sitting around with his college friends and telling them stories about how shitty his life had been, before. Dean's jaw was clenched from just thinking about it.

Christian's attention was on the girl sitting on his right, but when Dean ordered a couple more shots, he noticed. "Hush, honey, hang on a second," he said, and tapped a finger on the bar. "Hey," he said to Dean. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah," Dean said, but his poker face was for shit, and Christian had this concerned look, like he actually cared. Dean hated it. And then he opened his mouth, and said, in a burst of honesty he blamed on the tequila: "It's just my little brother, you know? He's in school. College. Full scholarship, the fucking geek."

"Wow, that's huge." Christian gestured to the bartender; two more shots. "You miss him?"

Dean thought about that, about what Sam would be doing, if he were here right now, sitting where Christian was sitting. He'd have his Bitchface Supreme on, and he'd be whining about the music, and complaining that he had to finish his homework and he wanted to go home. Dean missed it so much his teeth ached. "Not really," he said. He downed a shot and changed the subject. "So you're the only son in Lee and Sons?"

"I'm the only one around," Christian said, and rubbed a finger over his left eyebrow. Dean wanted to ask, but that would imply he cared, that they were friends, and Dean had no idea what to even do with that. He didn't make friends. He'd given that up in the first grade, when they'd moved six times in four months. There just wasn't any point; he reminded himself all the time, and Sam, too. His dad had said it over and over: never form attachments, never get too invested, so it's not hard to pack up and leave. Dean was a pro at cutting ties.

He looked down at his shot glass, ran a finger around the lip. "What's it like, working with your dad?"

Christian said, "Don't remember, really. He died when I was fourteen."

"Shit," Dean said. "You do this all by yourself since then?"

"Well, no. I've got the guys, you know. They all worked for him. It's a good crew."

"Sure, but..." Dean trailed off, not sure what to say. A weird pang of déjà vu went through him. Maybe it was because he'd imagined this for himself, him and Dad and Sam, working together in a normal place. A normal life. Not that he'd ever admit it to anyone else; Dad would have shut him down, and Sam...well, Sam had his own idea of normal.

For some reason, he really wanted to tell Christian that. It struck him that he could tell Christian anything, all of it - hunting, living life on the road, his weird, fucked up family - and maybe Christian wouldn't mind. Maybe he'd just nod a lot and pretend that he understood, like real friends did in the real world. The world Dean didn't get out in, much.

He didn't say any of it, though. He just tossed back his shot and sucked on a lime, and looked down at the bar.

"How about you?" Christian asked. "You go to college like your brother?"

Deans huffed out a laugh. "Nah. There wasn't any money, and I didn't have the grades, anyway. Besides, I needed to be around."

"For your brother?"

Dean shrugged. He shifted on the bar stool; the place was feeling kind of claustrophobic.

Another of those punk-ass emo rock songs was playing now, something Sam would know the name of, if he was here. Sam with his holey jeans and his righteous indignation and his know-it-all attitude, ready to pick a fight at a moment's notice over anything from the color of the grass to the tone in Dad's voice, and it hadn't been right, the way he left, in the middle of the night without a note or a fuck you or a call me, nothing at all, just taking Dad's words to heart and closing the door behind him.

"I'm sorry, man, I've got to go." Dean fished around for his wallet, but Christian shoved his hand, saying,

"Let me, come on --"

But Dean had his own ideas about what it was to be normal, how seductive and dangerous it could be, and it wouldn't work. It would only distract from the job. The real job. The one his dad was depending on him to do. He'd more or less managed to forget that the last few weeks, but that didn't change things.

"Nah, thanks." He threw the twenty on the bar and looked over at Christian then, gave him a smile, one Christian returned full-face. It was the same way Sam smiled, all of his happiness shining out through his eyes, and if there could be a last straw, that'd be it. "Really," he said, clapping Christian on the shoulder. "Thanks."

"Anytime," Christian said, while the emo rock switched over to Dio and the chatter in the bar amped up to match.

Dean went back to the garage the next day, but he didn't linger over what had to be done; he did the jobs quick, efficient, and finished patching his girl as fast as he could. He could feel that moment approaching, when Dad would shove off the sling and tell Dean they were back in the game, and he didn't want to be left out in the cold with a car out of commission and this sudden bizarre urge for normal dragging him down.

He quit on a Tuesday, no such thing as two-weeks notice in the Winchester world. Dad had told him not to quit at all, that it was better to vanish into the night after payday, but Dean thought maybe he owed Christian more than that. For some reason, it was harder than he thought it'd be to stand in the office and turn in his coveralls. "My dad," he said, by way of explanation. "Moving on, you know? He's got a job offer over in Evansville."

"Indiana, right," Christian said, putting the coveralls down on the desk. "Hey, if you ever get back this way, we can always use a good pair of hands, so. Stay in touch, okay?"

Dean blinked. Stay in touch? Aside from some random girls he'd dated in high school, no one had ever said that to him before. And right then, Christian gathered him up in a manly hug, which was weird on so many levels Dean couldn't process it, except for how it made him happy, and there was no point in thinking about that too much.

Christian's cell number was already in his phone; the guy was his boss, no big deal. That didn't explain, though, why he never deleted it, never called it, never did anything but pass over it when he scrolled through the short list of contacts.

Maybe he kept Christian's number to remind him not to get distracted by shit that wasn't his to have, or maybe it was to remind him of what it had been like, just for that moment, to feel normal. To have friends. To form a life around something other than blood and death and the road.

He was never quite sure which it was, and he never wasted a single second trying to figure it out.

III. Carmelita

The afternoon humidity was like a warm wet piece of velvet, clinging to Dean's skin and pressing his clothes damp against him. Florida was weird with its weather; one minute, glaring heat, and the next warm, rich rain, like the weather gods couldn't make up their minds.

Dad was asleep in the passenger seat, one booted foot propped against the dashboard, his head lolling against the window. Dean had never seen him so tired; it was like he hadn't had two seconds rest in weeks, traveling from one hunt to another without even a good night's sleep between, and dragging Dean along on every one of them.

He knew it was his fault, and that was the worst part of it. He should never have forgotten; it was a careless, stupid thing to do. One minute, they'd been sharing a beer and congratulating each other on putting down a standard-issue vengeful spirit; the next, Dad was sullen and angry, shutting down all conversation. All because Dean had blurted it out, the one thing he could never say to Dad, or admit to thinking: "I'll bet Sammy woulda loved to have seen-"

It was the sure-fire trigger, the tripwire; the name they didn't say, the hole in their family they never acknowledged. Sometimes Dean wasn't sure which was worse, pretending not to care Sam was gone, or trying to accept he might never come back. It had been a year, and Sam hadn't called, or left word for them.

Dean didn't have to be a mind-reader to know it was eating Dad alive, or that Dad would challenge anyone who dared to notice. Including Dean.

He put the pedal down and hauled ass south, south, as far south as they could go. Not much farther. Dad shifted in the seat next to him, arms curled to his body as if he were holding something against his chest.

His memories of Carmelita's place were somewhat dim, unlike his memories of Carmelita - just thinking about her made a smirk appear out of nowhere, curling the corner of his mouth - but he found it easily enough. Her house was near the beach, close enough to smell salt in the air and hear gulls squawking overhead. He parked on the street - the Impala stood out here among the beige and pink and green, but this wasn't their first visit, and people around here didn't question, anyway.

Carmelita's yard was full of faded pink flamingos surrounding one psychedelic pinwheel spinning lazy in the breeze. In the ten years since Dean had first seen them, the yard hadn't changed much at all. The grass was a little taller, the weeds thicker, but the basics were the same.

"Dad," Dean said. He kept a safe distance away and slapped his father's knee. "Dad, we're here."

His father jerked instantly awake, alert the moment his eyes opened. Dean envied that about his dad, since Dean had always been a heavy sleeper, and not a morning person, which was a source of continual disappointment to his father. Like most other things were, it seemed, since Sammy left. "What time is it?" Dad asked, rubbing a hand over his face.

"About two." Dean popped his door and stepped out into the gravel, stretched his arms over his head, and moved his shoulders gingerly.

"You all right there, old man?" His dad was grinning at him over the top of the car, and Dean snorted.

"You try driving ten hours in a row," he said, as if Dad hadn't done it a million times.

The screen door opened, and there she was: five foot nothing of woman in a sundress, arms cut like a body builder, dark hair pinned to the nape of her neck in a bun. She glanced at Dad first, smiled and saw her smile returned, and then her gaze settled on Dean. "Well, well, well. Look what the wind blew in." Her voice was like honey and smoke all rolled up together, and Dean shivered. He couldn't help it.

First time he'd seen Carmelita, he was fourteen and one giant walking hormone disguised as a teenage boy. Sammy had been fascinated by her cooking - plantains and flat sandwiches and god knows what else, Dean couldn't even fucking remember. All he remembered were her Daisy Dukes and the high heels she'd had on, some kind of platforms that looked like wicker, too fragile to hold her up.

"Been a long time," Dad said. He climbed the four stairs to her tiny porch and hugged her, and Dean hung back, not really sure if he should. Or maybe not actually sure his body could take it, because those adolescent fantasies were swirling around in his head like crazy.

"Dean," she said, holding out her arms, and he went into them, lured by invitation and the smell of...gun bluing. Exactly like he remembered. "You've put on about five feet since I last saw you."

"Fsht," Dean said, pretty sure he'd intended it to come out as a classy retort, but instead she got a random noise, which put a slow smile on her lips and a hot blush on Dean's face.

The inside of her house was full of light from the louvered windows, and it was pretty much like he remembered: religious icons on the pale green walls, all sorts of Madonna and child images, some of them painted with golden streaks that picked up the light and sparkled. He followed his dad and Carmelita into the dining room, where she had a pitcher of lemonade and three glasses set out on a silver tray. Next to the tray, two lengths of blue velvet provided a cushion for an array of knives and guns, some new, some very old, all of them of particular interest to hunters.

"I made a few additional purchases after you called," Carmelita told his dad. "Everything you might find useful is here." She poured John some lemonade, but he shook his head, so she passed the glass to Dean. He sipped it, sweat already trickling down the sides to wet his fingers, and watched his dad assess everything on the table, skipping quickly over the regular knives and looking at the various ceremonial daggers. Dean's eye was drawn to the guns, as always, but there was nothing there they couldn't pick up from any other dealer. There were knives, though, that he'd never seen, some with beautiful curved blades. They'd be exactly up Sam's alley.

Well, would have been, once.

Carmelita caught him looking and nodded. "Feel free," she said. He set his glass down on the tray and picked up a bone-handled dagger. Symbols had been burned into the bone, tiny curving lines with jutting points. "That one's two thousand years old," she said, and he almost dropped it, because he couldn't imagine how damned expensive it must be. The handle was warm to the touch. "For killing ancasha demons, the kind that take the form of children."

He set it down and touched a few others; one with a jeweled hilt, and a plain knife with a custom grip.

With careful fingers, Carmelita unwrapped something from a piece of burgundy silk and handed the package to his father. "This one was made to your specs, exactly as you asked."

John lifted the knife and held it up where Dean could see it. It was a hunting knife with an eight-inch blade, slightly curved at the tip; the hilt was made of dark wood, carved to allow for the grip of blunt fingers. John turned it deftly, then gripped the blade with the silk and handed it to Dean. "What do you think?" he asked.

Dean took the hilt and tested the heft. It was lightweight for such a long blade, and the grip was comfortable for his hand. With practice, it would be easy to throw. "It's awesome," he said, giving it a couple experimental flips across the back of his hand. "Amazing work."

"Yes, thank you," Carmelita said, smirking at him. Dean flushed hot all over again. He turned the knife to hand it back to his dad, but John shook his head.

"It's yours," he said, smiling a little.

"What?" Dean said, staring down at the knife. It wasn't his birthday; he hadn't done anything particularly cool lately. In fact, he'd been screwing up right and left, if his dad's moods were anything to judge by. He tried to pretend Carmelita wasn't standing right there, and he said, "Dad, what--"

"'s time for you to have a good knife, Dean. One that's your own, made for your hand. You'll need to start your own arsenal soon, if you're going to continue taking jobs." John smiled, shrugged, saying without words, not a big deal.

Before, Dean had always scrounged what he could, taking the rest from the common stash of weapons. This was...different. This was trust.

"Thanks," he managed, clasping the hilt with his fingers, then releasing it. "Thanks, Dad."

"Here," Carmelita said, reaching to take it from him. "Let me hone the blade for you." And she did, with an old-fashioned whetstone, something Dean had rarely seen done before. He watched the tip of her tongue dart out, caught between her teeth as she worked the blade, then polished it, and he had to look away before something embarrassing happened. Jesus, he wasn't fourteen anymore; he should be able to control his raging cock. It was stupid.

Dad and Carmelita made small talk, and Dean drank another glass of lemonade while he wandered the short hallways. One bathroom, white from the shower curtain to the towels to the rug on the floor. One bedroom, door closed. One workroom, scattered with all sorts of things that could get Carmelita arrested.

He looked back at the bedroom door. Carmelita had to be thirty-five if she was a day. An older woman. He could just hear Sammy scoffing at him, daring him to make a move. They'd have bet something on it, a couple of cokes, or maybe a week's worth of chores. The idea of it made Dean uncomfortable, now, like it was wrong, or maybe like it was cheap, and Carmelita wasn't cheap.

Back in the living room, his father was laughing. Dean wondered where Carmelita learned to make knives, how she got started. How hunters knew to call her, and why they trusted her.

When it was time to go, Carmelita gave him the knife in its soft leather sheath. "You make this, too?" he asked, and when she grinned at him, he grinned back, head tilted to one side. "Thanks," he told her, and she curled the red silk over her left hand.

"De nada."

Just at the door, after Dad had stepped through, she pressed up against him, brushed her fingertips over the hair above his ear. Her breath whispered against his neck as she said, "Sometime you call me, Dean. Sometime when you are hunting on your own, and we'll see what I can make for you."

He turned his head, brushed his cheek against hers, and smiled again, felt her smile against his skin. Yeah. He was going to call.

When he did actually call her, he was in the middle of something with Dad, a complicated exorcism in Detroit, and he called her for a special set of daggers. She didn't have them, and didn't know who did, but her voice was soothing, sugar and low rasp.

Every few months he called, usually looking for weapons or contacts, but she never had what he needed, never gave him the excuse to drive down into the sweet warmth, to see what other talents she had waiting. And then he forgot about her, because Dad had him so busy he could barely get a breath in between jobs.

He was in New Orleans at the end of a wacky hoodoo battle, complete with dolls and pins and weird dancing, sitting in a bar with some blonde giggling in his ear, when he thought of her again. He dialed her number, waited.

"Dean," she said, and he imagined the curve of her lips around his name. "What d'you need?"

"Nothing sharp," he said, thinking of her red fingernails. "Nothing you can make. I'm a couple states over. Thought I'd make a side trip, see what you've come up with lately."

"There's always something special waiting for you," she said, and laughed, charming the pants right off him.

"Good," he said, separating himself from the blonde. "I'll be there in a couple days."

That night, he tried his dad for the tenth time in three days, and got no answer. He lay awake in the motel room and thought about all the times he'd ducked his phone, and how Dad always answered no matter what, or called back. Three days, no call. No checking in, no messages, no nothing. The pit of Dean's stomach was cold, clenched.

Next morning, he loaded up and headed west, leaving the sultry south for sunny California. Later he'd call Carmelita, apologize. Didn't matter. He'd get down there eventually. There'd be time enough after he tracked down Dad.

IV. Curtis

The first few months, Dean kept asking and asking, and finally Dad caved and took a detour to Palo Alto, just long enough for John to verify Sam was enrolled and living in the dorms. Dean had wanted to get a look at him, but John wouldn't wait, and it became the hallmark of every visit: swing by, get just enough information to set Dad off again, and leave in a cloud of dust so thick Sam would never see them retreating.

There would be a period of time, after - a week, or maybe a month - where it was just like it was when Sam first left, Dad moping and angry, saying vicious things about Sam's loyalty and selfishness, until he vented his system and was good to go again.

Eventually, Dean stopped asking, and without the prompts, Dad let it go. Let Sam go.

It wasn't so easy for Dean.

His first few jobs on the west coast or northwest - the ones where Dad sent him out with stern instructions and timetables - he busted ass to finish up fast and get down to Palo Alto. He never knocked on Sam's door, never so much as winked at him across a crowded restaurant. He stealth-inspected Sam's life from a distance, watching him laugh with friends or study with his head down over his books, the way he used to before everything went screwy and Sam went off and left them.

One night he was leaning against a tree outside Sam's dorm, watching a group of girls in short skirts pass by on their way to some party, and he looked up to see Sam standing a hundred yards away, watching him. Dean pushed up from the tree, the start of a smile on his face - he didn't mind being busted, really; there was something like joy starting to bubble up into his chest - but Sam turned and walked away, jogging to catch up with his friends.

He never looked back.

Dean stood there a long time, until Sam was out of sight, and then he got in the Impala and sat there, shivering, looking at Sam's number on his cell phone. He tried it, once, a few days later. Sam never answered his phone. He never called back. So Dean returned the favor, because Sam was a selfish bastard; Dad was right about that much.

That didn't mean Dean was done with him, though. He just had to find...alternative methods.

After that, Dean made it down to Palo Alto twice a year. Most of the time he didn't make it into town; he'd find a nearby hotel, crash for a while, and then make the call. The last time, he straggled into the circle of a parking lot light at 2a.m., dead tired and hungry, without any change to spare, still bleeding from a couple gashes to the head - flying furniture always seemed to find him.

He didn't bother to look for a motel. He had extra blankets in the trunk and some petrified Twinkies, and he could make do.

In the morning, he got a cup of coffee from the local stop-and-rob and hit the restroom long enough to take a piss and wash his face. Then he flipped open the phone and dialed Curtis's number.

"Hey, I'm in town," he said, when Curtis answered.

Curtis chuckled thinly on the other end of the line. "You sound like hell, man. Where are you?"

"Some gas station, just off the highway." Dean squinted up at the sign, half-blind in the sunlight, but Curtis was ahead of him.

"Same place as last time, right?" and Dean realized it was, that he'd forgotten. Getting old. He snorted.


"See you in thirty," Curtis said.

Dean snoozed in the car, one leg thrown up over the passenger side of the seat and coffee stowed on the dashboard, until the knock on the window just beside his ear woke him. Curtis was standing there, shifting from foot to foot, the breeze whipping his expensive red tie off to the right like a windsock. Dean shoved out of the car and shook his hand. "How're things?"

"Great, great," Curtis said. He smiled and smoothed his tie, only to have it jump right back up again. "No problems with the house since you got rid of that thing."

"La Llorona," Dean said, though he'd probably told Curtis a hundred times. Every time he said it, Curtis flinched, like the thing was going to float up and start crying in his ear again. Dean supposed he could understand that; crying women made him twitch, too, and to have a ghost that never stopped wailing for its children wouldn't be his idea of a good time, either.

"Right." Curtis nodded. He set his briefcase on the hood of the Impala and opened it up to reveal a mess of papers and one manila folder. "I've got something for you."

"Hey, and I've got something for you, too." Dean patted himself down, looking for the envelope, and yanked it out of his inside jacket pocket. "It's not a lot, but-"

"Put that away," Curtis said. He was turning red.

Dean squeezed the envelope. It had taken him ten weeks of hustling pool, of being down and then up in a dozen penny-ante poker games, to scrape together three hundred dollars that didn't have to go for ammo or bottom-rung motel rooms, and he hadn't used a dime of it. He held it out to Curtis, waiting.

Curtis shook his head. "I seem to recall when you and your dad helped me, you wouldn't take a dime, no matter how many times I offered."


"So, you really expect me to take this now?"

Dean just stared at him, holding out the envelope of money expectantly.

Curtis sighed and grabbed the envelope. "Okay, fine." He fished around in the envelope, pulled out a twenty. "Let's say I charge a dollar for each hour of surveillance and research. So we're even." He lifted Dean's hand and smacked the envelope back into it, as if he was challenging Dean to say no.

"Just twenty hours?" Dean said. Two hundred eighty would get him a room for a week. It might even get him a meal that wasn't fries and a burger. He didn't put the envelope away.

"Whatever." Curtis dropped the bill in his briefcase, and Dean slowly folded up the envelope and placed it back in his pocket.

Curtis said, "So I did what you asked, got some basic information - classes, activities, grades." He shook his head with a smile. "I wish my kid was doing this well. Seriously, Dean, he's blowing his classmates out of the water. Top grades in every class, does well at everything he tries. He's not especially popular, but he does have friends, a few good ones. And there's a girl, too. Jessica...something. Jessica Moore." He slipped a few pictures from the folder and handed them to Dean.

They were high school photos, the kind Dean saw Sam attaching to college applications back when Sam still trusted him enough to tell him what he was up to, sharing secrets when Dad was gone for days at a time. She was a pretty girl, sort of the girl next door type, big eyes and a sweet smile. "What kind of pansy-ass classes is he taking? Art? Basketweaving 101?"

"Political science," Curtis said. "Looks like pre-law concentration to me."

Dean looked at the picture of Sam's girl, and said, "Huh."

Curtis gathered up a few other papers and straightened them, then handed them to Dean. "A brief report, if you're interested in it. He's coming up on summer break, so I won't have much for you until fall."

Dean thought about summers past, Christmases for the past three years, when Sam hadn't come home and hadn't called, when he'd gone god knows where and done god knows what, anything rather hang out where Dean and Dad were, how he hadn't bothered to think about doing anything for Christmas since Sam left, and the coffee in his stomach felt like acid burrowing into his gut. "This is enough," he said. "Thanks. For taking the time, I mean."

"I owe you way more than this," Curtis said. "You call me anytime you need a PI, and I'll do whatever it takes to help. Okay?"

Dean smirked, his hand clenched around the papers that detailed all the things about Sam he'd never know, otherwise. "You going to set up a side business, there, Curtis?"

"Maybe," Curtis said, with a little smile.

Dean pulled the door open and tossed the papers in. "Better ditch the tie, then. Don't want to give the bad guys something to strangle you with."

Curtis was still yanking at the tie when Dean put the Impala in gear and drove away.

About ten miles out of town, Dean opened the window and let the handful of papers find their way out onto the wind.

V. Donny

For most of the fall, Dean burned a swath through the chaste white panties of the bible belt's prettiest girls. It seemed that every town had a few beautiful virgins - or straight-up sluts who liked to wear pink and smack their clear lip gloss a lot - and Dean got on a kick that just wouldn't quit. The best part was, every single one of them had a friend with the hots for Sam.

The worst part was, Sam would never take a second look at any of them.

"She's got a sister, Sammy" only produced a roll of the eyes, and "She told me her friend thinks you're hot" could provoke Sam to actually pack up his laptop and leave the table. Even the tried-and-true "Hey, she sent you a drink" would bring out the bitchface, and still Dean couldn't stop trying. It was like an obsession, a giant pink GET SAM LAID sign in neon floating over his head, pushing him to ever more drastic measures.

He was sick of Sammy's cranky bitching, and goddammit, he was going to find the girl who could fix it. Even if he had to try her out first.

So it was something of a surprise when he turned around in the middle of a bar in Podunk, Arkansas and saw Sam leaning across the table, laughing at something a very pretty girl had just said. She was more what Dean thought of as his (disposable) type than Sam's - low-cut blouse, high-cut skirt, heels just this side of teetering - but Sam seemed pretty interested. Hell, he was just about drooling into his drink, and his eyes were shining. That was good enough for Dean. He picked up their beers and headed back to the table, where Sam looked up and met his curious glance with a grin. "Hey, Dean," he said. "This is Sharon."

"Hey, Sharon," Dean said, flashing her a huge smile, which she returned. She had a cute nose, too. Lots of freckles. Dean could just imagine the way it'd wrinkle if he-

"Dean," Sam said, and Dean jerked his attention back to his brother.

"What?" he said, on the back of a whine, just before he remembered: GET SAMMY LAID. He softened his tone. "Uh. Yeah. Did you get Sharon here a beer?"

"Just about to. Listen, Dean - she has a friend who thinks you're hot."

"Oh, yeah?" Dean straightened up a little and nodded to her. "That so?"

"Definitely," she purred, and Dean thought, bring it on.

"They want us to join them at their table, so I said-"

"Lead the way," Dean said, grabbing his beer. He followed Sharon over to the round booth at the far end of the bar, watched her slide in, noticed the dip in her shirt right at the swell of her ass - Jesus, what a great ass.

"Hey," some guy said, pushing past Dean and sliding into the booth.

Dean frowned, and just then Sam crowded up behind him and shoved him into the booth beside the guy, sliding in on the other side so Dean was trapped between them. "Dean, this is Donny," he said.

"Hey," the guy said again. He grinned at Dean, eyes dropping from Dean's eyes to his lips, to--oh, hell no.

"Sam," Dean said, sliding backwards, but Sam was like a giant immovable object at Dean's back, which normally, yes, awesome, best backup ever, like a brick wall, but now? In the way.

"I'm Sharon's friend," Donny said, reaching out for Dean's hand. He had warm hands. Very warm. Dean broke out in a sweat. Behind him, Sam was shaking silently, and Dean elbowed Sam. Hard.

"Great," Dean said, smiling and sinking down into the booth simultaneously.

What followed was ten minutes of Dean trying to make himself as small as humanly possible while Sam and Donny chatted about Donny's work - did Dean know that Donny had his own business? - and Donny's motorcycles - Donny has a thing for mean machines, don't'cha know - and his ex-boyfriend, who was a cheating pain in the ass, who didn't have lips anywhere as beautiful as Dean's. (That last was whispered when Donny's lips, which did NOT appeal to Dean on any level, were pressed gently to the side of Dean's ear.)

Right about the time Donny's hand slid up Dean's thigh, Dean narrowed his eyes and looked at Sam, and was gratified to see Sam's eyes widen with recognition. It was the oh, yes, bitch, it's on look, which Sam had plenty of practice interpreting, since Dean had been using it on him for the better part of twenty years.

For Sam, it was going to be a long few weeks of intense payback, and Dean was already looking forward to it.

Dean reached down and plucked Donny's hand off his thigh, dropped it back in Donny's lap, and patted it. "'Scuse me," he said, snatching his phone out of his pocket and pretending to check messages. "Aw, would you look at that, Sam, we'll have to call it a night."

"That's too bad," Donny said, voice somewhere on the south side of a growl, and Dean looked up directly into his blue eyes. Huh. Donny was pretty good-looking, if a guy went for that kind of thing.

"Some other time," Dean said, and turned his head to tell Sam they were out of there, when Donny plucked the phone from his hand and flipped it open. In the space of two seconds, he'd entered his name and number in the call list, the pushy bastard.

"There," Donny said, sliding the phone back to Dean. "So that when the time comes, you know where to find me."

"Um," Dean said, picking up his phone. That move took confidence. It'd be worth trying on a chick sometime, if he ever wanted one to have his number beyond the two hours he was thinking about her. "Great."

"Wish we'd had longer," Donny said, smiling a gentle kind of a smile that made Dean smile back, involuntary, just as Sam started shaking again. The shaking continued through Sam saying goodbye, all the way out the door, where Sam's cackle erupted at the same time Dean cuffed him in the back of the head, the fucking jerk.

"Dude, you are so dead," Dean said, low, and that made Sam laugh harder, until he had little girly tears sparkling in the corners of his eyes.

He laughed all the way back to the room, through his shower, and through most of Dean's, and when Dean turned out the light so he wouldn't have to see Sam's stupid face laughing at him anymore, the giggles started again.

"I'm cured, okay?" he shouted. "No more pimping you out!" -- and then in case that didn't make the point, he took his pillow and applied it liberally to Sam's face, hoping to stuff enough of it in his mouth to at least muffle the giggles.

Not that it worked. But when he put his head down on the remnants of his pillow, half the stuffing shredded out across the room and over Sam's bed, with the knuckle marks from Sam's noogie burning into his scalp -- the echo of that giggle sent him smiling into a contented sleep, with the GET SAMMY LAID light switched off.

For now.

April 2007

Notes: This is for Barkley, who wanted to know about the contacts in Dean's cell phone in Scarecrow. In fact, she sent me a list of the names so I wouldn't have to research it. She’s so enabling that way. These pieces are not in chronological order of any kind. Many thanks to Barkley for the prompt and for cheering me on, and to elynross for the amazing, super-quick beta.

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