Corner of Your Eye
One of the great things about being retired, Jack thought as he sat down in his rocker on the cabin's porch with a newspaper and a steaming cup of joe, was that all the news he read was about good ol' planet Earth. No more mission briefings, no more reports piling up in his overflowing inbox, no more frantic announcements of alien invasion just before the hammer came down. Just plane crashes and political scandals, human interest features and muggings, movie reviews, advice columns, and shrill, vitriolic, ham-fisted letters to the editor. Jack loved the smell of newspaper in the morning.
He slurped his coffee and propped his crossed ankles on the railing, listening to the call of a whooping crane somewhere over the water, smelling the brisk chill of spring in Minnesota. Yep, he sure did love being retired. He was relaxed as all get out. Not itching to be doing something important, not at all. Let the kids save the universe. All was well. Carter was doing her thing in Area 51, Teal'c was helping build an infrastructure for his newly freed people, and Daniel had the leisure time to translate alien squiggles to his geeky little heart's content. Yep. Retirement. It was awesome.
Jack's eye fell on a news story buried below the fold on the second page. "Police rule third mysterious death in woods an accident." As he read, his feet slowly removed themselves from the railing and lowered to the floor, until he was sitting forward in the chair, soles planted flat on the wooden planking, as if his body was prepared to jump up and run at any second.
The victim was a young guy in his twenties, active, apparently fit. He'd been out hiking. His body had been found by Russ Tamlin, an old-timer Jack chatted with sometimes when he went to the two-street town nearby to buy bait and other supplies. There wasn't a mark on the kid, nothing to explain what had happened, only a face contorted in what appeared to be abject horror or fear. Heart failure, the coroner had ruled. But there at the very end of the short article, no doubt kept by a local reporter desperate to pad out the space, was an insistent quote from Russ. "I know I saw something move in those woods. There was something invisible back there. That kid didn't die by accident. He was murdered."
Jack looked up from the newspaper, narrowing his eyes at the woods surrounding his pond. This had happened not far from the cabin. And Jack knew enough about cover-ups to catch a whiff of bullshit in this story. "Heart failure," right. That's what they always said when they couldn't come up with anything else, or weren't allowed to share the real story because the friendly men in black had come along and taken all the evidence away.
Third death... Not good. Jack hopped briskly to his feet and went back inside, leaving the coffee mug steaming forgotten on the railing. He had a stack of older newspapers near the back door, kept meaning to take them out and not doing it. With a little digging, he had the other two stories, too, buried five pages and three pages deep, respectively. Well, at least it was gradually coming toward the front. Not fast enough though.
The other two victims were also young, apparently healthy. A thirty-five-year-old librarian out for a picnic with her nieces, found dead after she wandered away for a few minutes to pick some flowers. A kid in his mid-teens found dead after taking a dare to spend the night in an abandoned logger's cabin. Faces frozen in what some said looked like terror. Deaths ruled to be caused by heart failure or other defects, pure and simple.
Yeah, sure, you betcha.
Something was definitely going on. Jack sat at his dining table with the three newspapers spread out in front of him, resting his chin on his hands as he stared at them sightlessly. Eight years ago, they had thought Earth was cut off from the galaxy. Now they knew better. And it wasn't just the Stargate. People were coming here in ships, too. Now the universe was aware of this little blue planet's existence, it seemed like everyone wanted a piece. Jack couldn't fathom what somebody would want with three youngsters in the Minnesota woods, but c'mon. Invisible attacker. Death by heart failure. Sounded like a cloaking device and a zat to him.
Decision made, Jack stood up and grabbed his baseball cap from the wall, jamming it firmly down on his head. Time to buy some bait.
Dad had been gone for a week, off hunting something. Dean wasn't worrying about it though. Sure, Dad thought the thing was dangerous, yet somehow was convinced that he didn't need Dean along to watch his back. And he hadn't answered his phone in a few days. But Dean wasn't worried. It was his dad.
He probably just thought Dean needed to get in a few more solo hunts, figure out how to do it on his own. Very much John Winchester's MO. Just like when they were kids and he left Dean and Sam somewhere in the woods, let them find their own way back to the road. Sink or swim, that's how it was. It was all just another military dry-run. So Dean should only be worrying about himself, and proving that he could do this.
He'd finished up with that voodoo thing, and Dad still wasn't answering his calls. So that probably meant he was supposed to find another hunt on his own, prove that he could do it. Then Dean would call him, after several days of silence, just announce casually over the phone that he'd banished a ghost in Oklahoma, or cleaned out a haunted house in Massachusetts, or destroyed a cursed object in Oregon. Sure, that was what he would do.
Dean hated this part, though. The research. He sat in an annoyingly neon internet café somewhere in Memphis, flexing his fingers over the keyboard, trying to ignore the kid playing World of Warcraft on his right and the goth girl writing depressing poetry to his left. (It was a toss-up which more irritating: the hissed "YESSSS" and fist-pumps or the gloomy muttering of potential rhymes.)
Like an old ache long left to scab over and never healed, he missed his bitchy little brother. It was always so easy to con him into doing all this boring shit. Dumb kid actually seemed to enjoy it. He was pretty good, too.
But that didn't mean Dean couldn't do it, even better and faster. He'd taught the brat practically everything he knew, after all, including how to tie his shoes. Dean still had the mojo.
He was Dean Winchester, and he would not be defeated by a hunk of silicon and glass.
All right, let's try "mysterious death."
Dean typed the query into the news database and sat back, blinking at the results that scrolled down the screen. 1-20 of 23,486.
"Awesome," he muttered. "This'll be a piece of cake."
He skimmed down the list of two-sentence summaries, counting on his gut to pick up something of interest. Clicked forward a page or two, skimmed those lists. Drummed his fingers on the desk. Clicked forward again. Hummed a few bars of Black Sabbath. Blinked. Sat up straight. Clicked back. One location was coming up more than once, and recently.
Some place in Minnesota. Three deaths, in the last couple of months, looked like an escalating pattern. Young people, active and fit, out doing innocuous activities in the woods. Faces contorted in death, cases ruled heart failure. Dean permitted a snort of amusement at that. Couldn't they come up with a better cop-out? He'd heard that one, like, twenty times. In the past six months.
And this little gem from some dude named Russ. "I know I saw something move in those woods. There was something invisible back there."
Poor guy. You could tell by the tone of the article that no one believed him. No one in Podunktown, Minnesota, anyway.
Invisible attacker. Faces frozen in fear. "Heart failure." Sounded like an angry spirit to him, probably just a straight salt-and-burn. Easy peasy. He'd take care of it, call his dad and let him know, and hopefully that would be the end of this stupid training exercise.
Dean logged out and stood, forcefully, letting his chair bump into the fist-pumping kid. An outraged "Hey, watch it!" floated up behind him as he walked briskly away, already reaching for the keys in his pocket. Time to hit the road for Minnesota. He hoped that the weather would be nice. And that the waitresses along the way would be hot.
Jack could feel the zat at the small of his back under his jacket, hard and cold, a misshapen lump of metal that wasn't from this world seeming to radiate alienness into his skin. He wasn't supposed to have it, of course, but being the retired director of the SGC had its perks, including no one looking at his briefcase when he left. And obviously, this was entirely justified, since he'd now found himself in need of one.
The zat wasn't the only bit of ex-military paraphernalia he'd brought along for this little excursion into the woods. He was even wearing an old set of fatigues, dark green and as tough and rugged as those Ford commercials wanted you to believe their trucks were. What was the use of giving all that time and energy to Uncle Sam if he couldn't give a little back? Fatigues, ammo, a nicely customized handgun—all part of the pension package.
At least he'd left the C4 back at the cabin. Let it never be said that Jack O'Neill was not a cautious and discreet man.
Okay, this should be close to where Russ Tamlin said he thought he saw something. Jack paused his ground-eating stride and turned slowly around, taking in the surrounding woods through narrowed eyes. Looked like just about any other random patch of trees, and Jack had seen plenty of them, on this and hundreds of other worlds. Like that actually meant anything.
He looked back at the little GPS locator in his hand. Yep, this was as close as he was gonna get without a clairvoyant to tell him exactly where the guy had been standing. Or Tamlin himself, of course. But the old-timer had refused to have anything more to do with this sorry business, and Jack couldn't really blame him. At least Tamlin had plotted his position on a map, close enough for this little doohickey to be of some use. It was a lot more and better information than Jack often had to work with.
As if it purposefully chose this moment to ruin every good feeling Jack was having about it, the GPS made a poit noise, and the screen started fuzzing in and out. Jack growled and hit a few buttons with a stiff, angry finger, then shook the thing a little bit, just in case that would help. But yeah, he should have expected what would happen when he tried his own brand of home repair. The demon-toy just quit working altogether, screen winking to black in a mocking hiss of electronic death. Gah! Technology. He should have known better than to try to deal with this stuff without Carter.
Whatever. Jack stuck the thing in a deep pocket and took a breath. In with Mr. Good Air, out with Mr. Bad Air. In with Mr. Good Air, out with Mr. Bad Air. Gradually he calmed, and felt a flash of gratitude for his Jaffa teammate, especially the time they had accidentally switched bodies and Jack had been forced to figure this out. Teal'c would never use these terms to describe his meditations, but it was the same basic idea, and performed the same function for Jack.
The sound of a step in the forest alerted him to the presence of someone—or something—else, and Jack turned toward the sound, smooth and silent. Then came another step, the crunch of twigs, the shuffle of leaves. The noise was too heavy to belong to one of nature's harmless little denizens, too imprecise to be just a deer. And it was coming closer.
Jack ducked behind a tree, crouching down in a convenient spray of bushes so he could watch the stranger approach. After a moment he caught a flash of something brown through the tree screen, then a pale hand holding some sort of object, small, dark, and oblong. Not a gun. The brief glimpse Jack had gotten seemed to bespeak some sort of little black box, but that made no sense at all.
At last the unwary idiot stepped straight out into the open where anyone could see him. Jack blinked. It was just a kid, somewhere in his twenties, wearing a brown leather jacket and dark green shirt, a shotgun slung over his back, pockets heavy with what Jack was willing to bet were unspent shells. He was holding a stupid Walkman in his hand, the headphones in his ears.
Well, at least that somewhat explained his inability to walk quietly in the woods. But it didn't explain his pure, complete, incomparable idiocy in walking out here, brazen and unguarded, where three people had recently died for no good reason.
Great. It's a civilian.
Dad had taken the EMF meter with him, of course. On his way up to Minnesota, Dean stopped at a Goodwill and bought a junky old Walkman, then went to a Radio Shack for a few other components. One evening of work, parts spread over a motel dining table (and a few small electrical burns on his hands, but they didn't count), and he had his own meter, cleverly disguised as a tape player. He was quite pleased. See, Dad? I can do this. No problem.
Russ Tamlin was not quite as easy to work with. The guy seemed exasperated by the questions, said something about way too many people being way too interested in this morbid topic. "That poor boy is dead," he told Dean, frowning fiercely through his gray mustache. "Let the dead rest in peace."
Dean could agree with this sentiment in theory, but sometimes the dead needed a little help to find their peace. Help that he could provide in the form of a bag of salt and a lighted match. So he nodded solemnly, then explained that the dead kid had been a friend of his in high school and he just wanted to understand what had happened. Tamlin sort of melted at this, Dean turned up the charm another few watts, and he had his info.
"Be careful!" The old-timer called as he stepped out of the bait shop. "That thing could get you, too!"
Dean waved back in acknowledgement, gave him a hearty, confident smile. The concern was...kind of sweet, actually. He wanted to assure the fellow that he was a professional, that he could handle it. Just a simple haunting. No sweat.
Now here he was just strolling through the woods, cool as a cuke. He was packing his favorite Colt .45 on one hip and a flask of holy water on the other, Bowie through his belt, pure iron down his boot, shotgun loaded with rock salt on his back. And brand-new EMF meter in his hand. He'd had yet to hear so much as a peep out of the thing, but he was still a little ways off from the spot Tamlin had marked.
This was just initial recon, seeing what he could see. The next few days would be full of research, digging through records at the town hall, charming the locals, eating pie at the local diner. He would find out who the restless spirit had belonged to, discover where they were buried, and put them to rest. First, though, he had to prove to his own satisfaction that he was correct in his assumptions about what was causing this. Protocol. S.O.P. This was what his dad had taught him, the steps and the tools of their trade, and he would prove that he had learned the lessons well.
Dean hummed a little as he stumped through the bracken, cheerful, not taking a lot of care at this point. He could walk quietly in the woods if he wanted, but this was broad daylight, the domain of picnickers and nature enthusiasts. This wasn't a hunt, not yet. Rather, he was hoping that he would draw attention to himself. Let the angry thing come. He was ready to deal with anything. Better him than some poor bastard out for a pleasure hike.
As if responding to the summons, the EMF released a muffled squawk of static in his ear, low, not particularly strong, but definitely there. Dean grinned and swung the Walkman back the other way, stepping forward quickly, hoping for more. Obligingly, here came more hisses and pops, building in intensity. Good. There was definitely something supernatural going on here.
Excited, Dean crunched through some twigs and hit a pile of leaves with his long stride. Then the EMF readings abruptly stopped, the Walkman dead in his hands. He paused momentarily, nonplussed, staring down at his creation. It was silent, just a little block of metal and plastic. Had he crossed a wire somewhere?
And then a tough-looking old guy in a beat-up army jacket stepped out from behind a tree and just stood there scowling at him. "Hey, kid! Don't you think it's time you got home, before your supper gets cold and your mommy starts thinking you got lost?"
Great. It's a civilian.
From the cocky upturned collar of his leather jacket and the total stupidity of being here at all, Jack had pegged the kid as the kind to rise to cheap shots, get angry, and then stomp off in a pique. It should be easy enough to rile the little punk up to the point that he would voluntarily leave this area, where his life was in very real danger. Jack started his salvo with a low, obvious insult to the youngster's age and inexperience, and was gratified to see him immediately pale with rage, lips tightening, freckles standing out.
Then the kid seemed to gather himself, sticking the Walkman in his pocket and settling back on his heels, an insouciant, white-toothed grin spreading out over his face. Laying claim to the territory. "Nah, I'm good," he said, an insolent lilt in his voice. "Gorgeous weather, beautiful spring day, and mmm—" He spread his arms wide, taking in a deep breath through his nose, chest rising grandiosely. "—gotta love that zesty fresh scent in the air." Dark eyebrows lowered in mock concern, hands falling back to his hips. "I'm more worried about you, old guy. Air's got a bit of a nip to it—is your arthritis acting up? I can walk you back to the road if you like—won't take more'n a few minutes." He twisted back toward the way he came, hands gesturing in invitation, face open and innocent.
Jack prevented his mouth from drawing tight, keeping his face carefully blank. He leaned against the tree on one shoulder, letting his jacket slide aside to reveal the sidearm on his hip. "You must be new around here. Tourist? You know, there's a reason they tell you not to go off the trails. You could twist your ankle in a rabbit hole or something."
"Not me, man. Got reflexes like a cat. But you're probably slowing down in your old age, huh? Kind of you to be so concerned when you really ought to be more worried for yourself."
"Hey, don't hurt yourself, getting all bent out of shape over my safety. I've been tracking the most dangerous game alive since before you could peepee in the potty." Jack flipped a hand casually toward the kid's arsenal, the guns on his back and in his belt, the knife down his boot. "Sure you shouldn't be more worried about yourself? That sawed-off looks a bit finicky to me. Could go off by itself at any second."
"Dude, the safety is on Old Bessie." The kid reached back with his free hand to pat the shotgun's bore. "I could let a toddler play with it."
"You already are, kid."
"Takes one to know one, old guy."
"You keep calling me that, you're gonna get called something else."
"You keep calling me 'kid,' I'll keep calling you 'old guy.' Equivalency in communication, man."
As they spoke they had gradually stepped toward each other until they were practically chest to chest, voices rising, eyes sparking, hands gesticulating. But Jack fell back a little at the last one, forced to concede this one point. He swiped a hand over his face and adjusted the bill of his cap.
"Look, kid, it isn't safe for you out here," he tried again, in a more reasonable tone of voice. "There's something out here killing people your age. I know these woods, and I'm gonna take care of it."
Genuine bewilderment spilled over the youngster's face then, and he, too, took a small step back. Then he shook his head, slow and sure. "No, old guy, you don't get it. I'm fine. I know what's going on."
Jack blinked. "No, I don't think you do. I have it under control. Go. Play with the other kids." He flapped a hand back toward the road.
"Yeah, no." A short, incredulous laugh burst out of the young man's mouth. "You really should let me handle it."
"And you should really get back to the daycare before they figure out you've escaped."
"Yeah? Did you get a free pass out of the nursing home? 'Cause really, man, you shouldn't be wandering around here alone." The kid stepped away for a minute, calling into the trees. "Hey! Hello! Anyone? Nurse, hospice worker, candy striper? You lost your Alzheimer's patient! I'll look after him till you get here!" He turned back to Jack, holding out a hand as if in reassurance. "Don't worry, buddy," he said in an infuriatingly condescending voice, "I'll make sure you don't get hurt while we wait for your helper to come find you."
"Okay, that's enough," Jack growled. He stepped forward and grabbed the kid's elbow, intent on dragging him out of the danger zone.
Dean was so startled by the sudden invasion of his personal space that he didn't immediately react when the guy lunged forward and grabbed his arm, then started hauling him back the way he'd come.
"Hey, whoa! Hands off, Mr. Grabby! I'm not that kinda girl." Dean wrenched his arm free and turned to face the other man. Reflexively, he settled into a defensive stance, legs apart, knees bent, arms spread and loose. He grinned, aware that it was probably a little shaky. This sucker was fast. "You gotta at least buy me a drink first."
He blinked a little when the guy automatically mirrored his stance, ready to take him on. And then the older man smiled, wide and predatory, eyes dark and focused. This dude knew what he was doing. "No alcohol for you, kid. I don't want to be hauled away on charges of corrupting minors."
The old guy swung in, open-handed, reaching for Dean's arm again. He blocked it, then retaliated with an easy move he'd been practicing since he was eight. And just like that, they were sparring, finding their balance on the uneven ground, trading blows and blocks and evasions, falling into the rhythm of it as if they did this every day.
They weren't trying to hurt each other, even at the beginning when they reached out in anger and frustration. It felt more like a testing, two equals discovering each other's capabilities. To Dean it felt like fighting with his dad, each pushing the other, enjoying the competition, each determined to win. He swung around a tree and shucked the shotgun, coming out the side aiming another blow. The other man let him do it, was waiting on the other side with a vicious block.
Before long the anger and frustration faded, and it was just two guys trying to beat each other fairly. Their grins became genuine. And they laughed at each other, Dean hot and bright, the old guy ferocious and joyful.
They backed each other up against the trees, fell in the bracken, leaped up to face each other, blocked fists and hand-chops on forearms and raised knees. Dean had the edge in agility and stamina, but the old guy was no slouch. He knew moves Dean had never seen before, never, and he had studied an awful lot of fighting techniques, everything he and Dad could find. Dean knew he was going to win it, though, all he had to do was keep wearing the guy down, it seemed like his knee was bothering him, he would have to give in soon...
A hand on his arm, an elbow to his back, a whirling rush of green as Dean grunted and air deserted him, and he found himself on the ground. He gasped breathlessly, chest pressed into the dirt, black spots floating before his eyes. His arm was twisted behind him and he could feel the old guy's knee in the small of his back, pinning him down. He'd lost. For a moment all he could do was fight to catch his breath. Damn, that hurt.
"Okay, okay! You win! Lemme up!"
The weight vanished and Dean rolled over on his back, still gasping. The guy was holding out a hand. For a moment Dean just stared at him, but then he took the offered help, grasping the callused palm in his.
The other man pulled him to his feet like it was nothing, then clapped him on the shoulder, hard. Dean winced and tried to stretch out that arm. Crap, that ached.
"Sorry, kid. You would have had me, but I don't play fair. Now go on, get outta here. It isn't safe for you here."
Dean panted, staring. The guy had lost his baseball cap and he was sweaty and a little winded, but not nearly as worn out as he should have been. This was no ordinary yokel out hunting squirrels.
"No, listen, man." Dean spoke as calmly and sincerely as he could manage while still struggling for every breath. "You don't know what's going on out here. I do. You don't know how to handle it. You don't have the tools. I'm ready. I've been preparing all my life. I'm not just a kid out screwing around. I know what I'm doing, and this is not a good place for you to be right now. You gotta believe me."
The man looked at him seriously, sucking on his lower lip. "You know that this isn't just a bunch of accidents, heart failure and that junk."
"Yeah. I know."
"Well, okay then. What do you think is going on?"
Dean laughed shortly. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
The old guy crossed his arms over his chest, eyes narrowed, sweaty gray hair sticking up all over the place. "Try me."
And Dean didn't know what the hell he was supposed to do next.
The kid just stared at him, mouth open, eyes wide and uncertain—they were green, Jack noticed, a little amused at his own inanity. It was as if no one had ever asked for his opinion before, as if no one ever listened to what he had to say, just ran roughshod over him and did what they wanted. Well, and maybe it was true—that kind of snide, sarcastic mouth was usually a defense mechanism. Jack understood that very, very well.
"No really," he said, uncrossing his arms, letting his hands spread open in a very Daniel-like gesture of friendliness and listening. "If you want me to do what you want, leave and let you handle this thing on your own, you're gonna have to prove to my satisfaction that your theory is the right one. And I gotta tell ya, you're gonna have to be pretty damn convincing."
The young man fidgeted, looked away, ran a hand through his short hair. "You won't believe me," he mumbled.
Jack blew out a breath in frustration and stuck his hands in his pockets. "Okay, let's start over." He caught the kid's eyes. "Hi, I'm Jack. What's your name?"
A brief smile flitted over the full lips, and he met Jack's gaze more fully. "I'm Dean. Nice to meet you."
"Great. Dean. Welcome to Nowheresville, Minnesota. Where ya from?"
"Oh, around." And the fidgeting was back.
"Oh, yeah? I hear it's nice there."
Again the little smile, nervous, hesitant. "Beautiful girls, too."
Jack found a strangely bent tree and leaned against it, almost sitting, casual and relaxed. "So, Dean. You heard about something strange going on in these woods? People dying. No good reason as far as I can tell. They keep calling it heart failure, but we both know that's a load of bullcrap." He took the broken GPS locator out of his pocket and turned it over in his hands, still keeping his voice light. Just shooting the breeze. "What do you think is going on?"
Dean had found a stump to sit on, mirroring Jack's slumped posture. "I have my theories. What do you think it is? Could be we think the same thing."
"Yeah, I kinda doubt it."
They were at a standstill again, neither willing to reveal their hand. Jack couldn't, really, because anything he could say would be classified. And the boy, well... He genuinely seemed to believe that Jack would find his story crazy. But it was obvious that Dean was telling the truth—he wasn't just a stupid kid out screwing around. He had come prepared for something, that was sure, and he wasn’t backing down. And so they just sat here, staring at each other.
Dean tilted his chin toward the device Jack was fiddling with. "Whatcha got there?"
Jack tipped it forward so Dean could see the black screen. "Little GPS thingy. Quit working on me right as I got here. Just blew a raspberry at me and gave up the ghost."
"Oh, yeah?" The young man inclined his head, eyes bright with interest. "Same thing happened to my um...my Walkman."
"You want me to take a look at it? I'm pretty good with electronics."
He held out a hand, and Jack eyed it dubiously. "I dunno, kid. It's probably just me. These things don't like me."
"That's because you're old, old guy." Dean sat back with a cheeky grin, and Jack smirked at him. Yeah, this nickname was never going to go away, was it? He guessed he sort of deserved it, though.
Dean sat up straight suddenly, at attention, head turned away as he gazed off into the trees. "You feel that?"
Jack looked up, focusing on his senses. The air felt different, all of sudden. Heavy. Colder than it had been. It felt darker, too, though the light had not diminished, still filtering through the leaves without a cloud above to dim it. It was as if a storm front had suddenly rolled in, but without the storm.
"Yeah, I feel that." He rose to his feet, slowly, depositing the GPS back in his pocket.
Dean paced the small clearing in a tight circle, head up, eyes flitting here and there. It was the stride of a hunter, wary, alert. Silent, too. So the kid could walk quietly in the forest, when he wanted to. He turned sharply to Jack, face tight with alarm. "Something's coming. You gotta get away from here!"
Jack's forehead wrinkled in puzzlement, but he made no move to do as Dean asked. "You wanna enlighten me on this, kid?" he drawled, completely without urgency.
Shit. Dean growled in frustration and turned away, drawing his Colt and holding it steady, pointing toward where the sense of supernatural malevolence was the strongest. Not that it would probably do any good at all, unless it was actually a physical presence, which was damn unlikely. Not with this pattern of killing.
The shotgun. Where was the shotgun?
Dean whirled toward the area where he'd dropped the gun—too far away. And in that moment of inattention, something slammed into his left side, lifting him up and propelling him across the clearing with terrifying speed. He crashed full-on into a broad tree trunk, cracking his head against a hard, raised knot, and all the greenery around him started to turn gray.
No. No! He had to stay conscious, had to save Jack. He heard the sharp report of a handgun—Jack was shooting at something. It wouldn’t do any good. Dean grunted and pushed back the clinging shroud of unconsciousness, promising rest, so easy and sweetly dark. "Jack!"
He forced his eyes open, felt himself still pinned to the huge, rough trunk, spread-eagled, the Colt fallen from his nerveless fingers. Through a whirling mist of green and gray he caught a blurry glimpse of Jack, face twisted in bewilderment and concern, coming toward him with his hand outstretched.
"The...gun," he gasped out around the enormous weight on his chest, on his body, on everything. "The shotgun. Get the shotgun!"
There were icy fingers on his face, pulling him around, forcing him to look. A swirling mass of shadow and cold, darkness complete and total, broken only by shards of ice. In the ice and darkness, a face, a face made of shattered black glass, whitened with frost, a gaping maw open to swallow him down.
Come, little one. Come and rest. Come and feel no pain, no fear, no loneliness. There is only sweet peace here. Come and taste it. Come, come rest.
Heavy malaise gripped Dean's limbs, dragging him down. He gasped, fighting both the pain in his head and the compelling pull of frosty darkness. Despite the voice's promise of rest and peace, he felt only terror, cold and absolute. This is what those kids felt right before they died, those poor people, they never stood a chance.... God, he'd been such an idiot, thinking he could handle this by himself. He was so stupid, he deserved to die. His could see the disappointment on his dad's face, heavy with disapproval, that little frown and the lowered eyebrows...
The blast of the shotgun filled the world, white and harsh and close, too close. Dean choked on a gasp, feeling the spray of ricocheting salt on his leg, and then the terrible pressure on his body was gone and he thudded to the forest floor, losing his breath once again. Again everything started going gray, but the cold and the darkness was gone, vanished, dismissed. The supernatural presence was gone, though he knew it wasn't destroyed.
Dean flopped over on his back and stared up at the leaves and light, just trying to breathe, watching his vision blur in and out at the edges, There were too many of everything, it seemed like, too many leaves, edges melting together, too many tree branches up there, and then two Jacks bending over him, floating in and out of each other. He blinked and laughed breathlessly. "Dude... When did the other old guy get here?"
Hands on his shoulders, just two of them, though it felt like there ought to be a bunch more. "Hey, kid. It's just me. Can you stand?"
Dean flapped a hand in easy agreement. "Hell, yeah, man, I can do anything. I'm Dean Winchester, doncha know."
Jack chuckled gently. "No, I didn't know that. But right now I just need you to stand up. C'mon kid, I'm not as young as I used to be, and it's been awhile since I packed a buddy out of the jungle."
"Dude, you are freakin' Rambo."
"Yup, that's me," Jack said with a sort of indulgence. Then his voice became hard, commanding. "Now, on your feet, soldier!"
Dean could only respond to that tone in one way, and that was instant and total obedience. He found himself on his feet without quite knowing how he'd gotten there, and then he was swaying, the whole world rocking like a ship. Jack grabbed his arm yet again, and then something happened, and Dean was draped over his shoulder like a friggin' little kid.
"Hey, hey, put me down," he protested, but his voice was weak and ineffectual even to his own ears.
"Yeah, not gonna happen," came Jack's voice from somewhere above. "Just relax, kid. I gotcha."
This time Dean just let the darkness take him. It was less embarrassing that way.
Damn, it had been a long time since Jack had carried a buddy out of enemy territory, though he'd certainly done it plenty of times, and the memories still felt fresh. By the time he got back to where he'd parked the truck, hauling Dean over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, both knees were aching and he was just about ready to call it quits. He was definitely too old for this.
But he'd still beaten the punk kid in a fair fight, and Dean had been a very worthy sparring partner, so he guessed he hadn't lost all of his teeth yet. Jack allowed himself a small smirk as he wrestled the passenger door open with one hand, then hefted the kid's dead weight into the seat. The smirk faded, though, as he remembered that thing he had shot at, first with his sidearm, then with the zat, and finally with Dean's shotgun. What was that? No alien Jack had ever seen or heard of, though he supposed he could still be right.
Maybe not, though. Could be that Dean had been the one with the correct theory all along, whatever it was. And wasn't that just a kick in the pants.
Dean moaned softly as Jack settled him in the truck, shivering in the spring air. The boy was too pale, face slack in unconsciousness, hands clammy and shuddering with post-trauma chills. Probably some mild shock setting in.
Jack took off his fatigue jacket and pulled Dean's arms through the sleeves, backward, wrapping it around the slim figure, then leaned over to start the truck and turn the heater up to full. Then he took the kid's head in his hands, feeling around for the bump. The crack of Dean's skull hitting that tree still echoed in his ears. It had sounded like a hard one, and he wasn't surprised that the young man was still out.
There was a patch of blood-matted hair at the back of Dean's head, but the bleeding had stopped. Jack explored the bump as carefully as he could. It didn't feel too bad, but he was sure it would hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. And every blow to the head brought the risk of internal hemorrhaging, brain damage, death. If Dean didn't wake up soon, he'd have to take him to a clinic. From what he knew of the kid, he figured that the attention wouldn't be welcome.
Just as he started to pull his hands back, though, Dean released a little whimper and his eyes slid open, just a sliver. Jack gave the kid a smile, studying his eyes. Pupils were the same size, and when he turned Dean's head in his hands, they reacted to the light the way they ought to.
"Hey, buddy. How ya feeling?"
"Mmrmph." Dean's eyes tracked him carefully, sluggish and confused. "Dad?"
"Nope, just me. Jack. The old guy."
"Oh." Dean let his eyes slide shut again, utterly relaxed, practically melting back against the seat. Apparently he trusted Jack as fully as he trusted his dad. Heartwarming, but not what Jack needed at the moment.
Jack lowered his hands to Dean's shoulders and gave them a little shake, trying not to jostle his head. "Hey, I need you to stay awake for a little bit, okay?"
"Mmm...'kay." Dean forced his eyes open again, struggling to focus on Jack's face.
"Can you remember what happened?"
"Ummm... Yeah. Dark. Cold. It was gonna pull me down. You shot it with the salt." He attempted a queasy-looking smile and gave Jack a shaky thumbs up. "Was awesome."
The words were a little slurred, but not too bad, and no temporary amnesia. Jack nodded. "Okay, good. How do you feel? Think you're gonna throw up?"
"Nope. 'M good."
Dean let out a put-upon sigh. "I'm tired, man. Lemme sleep."
That was a yes, then. "In a minute, I promise. First, can you tell me what that was and how I can kill it?"
Dean had let his eyelids slip down again, but at this he opened up one more time and fixed Jack with a pleading stare. "Nap first. Then I tell you. Okay?"
God, the youngster was trying to negotiate with him. Concussed, ill, and making a deal. Jack supposed he shouldn't be surprised. This boy was clearly a soldier of some kind, fighting a war at the edges of society, giving no quarter and taking no chances.
He couldn't help but smile. "All right, Dean. You go ahead and nap. I'll keep an eye out."
"Thanks, Jack." Dean faded easily down into sleep, turning his head and curling up in the seat.
Jack pulled the seatbelt around and strapped him in, then closed the door as quietly as he could. Back to the cabin, then. Let the kid rest and recover a bit. And then they were going to have a talk.
Back at the cabin, Jack roused Dean enough to walk from the truck to the door. The young man's arm was slung heavily about his neck, and their feet almost tangled together as they made their way up the porch steps and stumble-thumped across the rough wooden planking, Dean clumsy with weakness and fatigue, Jack fighting the soreness in his knees. He got them inside, deposited the kid on the biggest, comfiest sofa, and went to the bathroom for supplies.
He returned to find a confused and cross-eyed Dean struggling to take off the fatigue jacket and failing miserably, tugging ineffectively at one wrist and then the other. As Jack stood there watching, fighting to contain his amusement, he grunted in frustration and gave up, glaring blearily down at the jacket's back wrapped around his torso. Jack snorted quietly and hesitated for a moment before deciding to go ahead and rescue the poor kid from the vicious coat-creature.
He set the first aid kit on the end table next to the sofa and sat down, reaching over to help untangle the tough green fabric. "Here, let me get that for ya."
Dean accepted the assistance in much the same way that an exhausted five-year-old would accept help getting out of a snowsuit, letting the other man peel off the fatigues, and then his own leather jacket underneath that. But when Jack reached for his head again, he jerked away with a hiss. "'S fine," he blurted, the words garbled and almost unintelligible. His narrow-eyed scowl, though, spoke much more clearly.
"I'm sure it is," Jack said calmly. "I just want to make sure."
"Don' touch it!" The kid tried to stiff-arm him away, his entire body stretching tight, vibrating with "keep-off" vibes. He was too dizzy and befuddled to put up any effective resistance, but the struggle still wasn't doing him any favors, and Jack growled in irritation.
"Hold it, Dean Winchester." He put on the barking commander's voice again, and again the younger man responded. Like flipping a switch, he went still and quiet, blinking at Jack in silent confusion. Again, Jack wondered what branch of the military this boy had been in. Army? Marines?
"Let me help you," the older man said, trying on a soothing tone just to see how it felt. He could still hear the annoyance surging beneath it, though—"soothing" was not his best. "If you don't let me take care of it, I'll have to drag you to the clinic forty-five minutes away, and that won't be any fun for either of us. Now, you took a good smack to your noggin, and I just want to make sure that nothing's broken. You gonna let me?"
Dean nodded slowly, and offered no more trouble. He turned sideways to let Jack clean the wound on the back of his head and bandage it with butterfly strips. Though he trembled a bit when the antiseptic hit the raw flesh, he held absolutely still, pressing his side against the back of the couch as if he could hide there. Like it was his job to obey, to give every scrap of energy he had in order to do what he was told. When Jack finished, he let his fingers wander into the soft, mussed hair on the side of the kid's head, away from the wound, and rested them there for a moment like a quiet benediction.
"Good boy," he said softly, hardly knowing why. "Good soldier. You're gonna be fine."
He went back to the bathroom for ibuprofen and a glass of water. Dean took the small brown pills from his palm without question, drained the glass, and stretched his wiry length out on the sofa with a small sigh. Wordlessly, Jack unlaced the kid's dirt-crusted boots and set them aside, then covered him with a Native American-patterned afghan. Dean let his eyes drift shut, was already gone before Jack finished tucking him in and stood up.
Jack stood there for a moment looking down at him. Charlie...Charlie would be in his early twenties, now. He would be strong, and tall, and Jack could only hope that he would have been half as smart and brave as this young man was. Maybe he would have joined the Air Force. Maybe not—he'd been an independent-minded little cuss, just as ornery as his old man—he might have decided to be a lawyer just to spite him.
God, he didn't know why he was thinking of his son, so long dead and buried. Jack turned sharply away and strode over to the telephone. There was someone he needed to call.
Still, he found himself gazing back over at the sleeping young man as he listened to the ringing at the other end. Dean looked peaceful, there, sleeping under Jack's afghan, the lamp by his head spreading a pool of warm, yellow light. The kid would be fine, he was sure.
Jack jerked his eyes away as the person on the other end picked up. "Yeah, hey, Daniel? I was wondering if you knew about any sort of alien, or legend, or folk creature or something, some kind of entity that doesn't like salt...."
It was a murmuring sound, something like conversation, that gradually filtered through Dean's consciousness and slowly roused him from a deep sleep. For a while he just lay there, listening to the indistinct voices, rising and falling, a hushed hiss like a cheering crowd, a low cry like a victorious yell buried under six feet of snow. He was warm and comfortable, cocooned in something thick and just heavy enough to feel protective without smothering him. He didn't know where he was, exactly, but he didn't care, because he knew that it was safe. Someone was watching out for him. He was going to be okay.
Eventually, though, the dull ache at the back of his head sharpened to a throb, and then a stabbing pain. Dean grumbled irritably and tried to ignore it, tried to fall back into the comfort of sleep. But the pain was relentless, chasing him down into the warm gray and pulling him back into the waking world, cold and jagged and hard.
Dean huffed in displeasure and opened his sticky eyes, reaching up to rub away the sleep grit with a clumsy fist. After a moment the blurs that met his vision, dark brown, deep red, and warm yellow, resolved themselves into a crowded living area, full of cozily beaten-in pieces of furniture. The walls were rough-hewn logs, the lit lamps had red shades that made the quality of light somehow dark and masculine, and a man was sitting in the recliner in the corner, longneck beer in his hand, watching some kind of sports game on the television against the opposite wall.
As he watched, the man took a long swig from the beer bottle, then let it rest back on the arm of the chair. He was totally relaxed, sprawled in the recliner, feet up on a scuffed leather ottoman. And the game on the television... Dean narrowed his eyes, trying to make it out. Hockey. The sound was way down, so far down that he was surprised Jack could follow the game at all.
Jack. The man was Jack. This must be his place.
Dean got his arms beneath his body and pushed himself up, frowning when his elbows trembled and almost buckled beneath him. Damn, what had he done to himself? He felt like shit. A thick afghan fell from his shoulders as he leveraged himself up, then flopped into a sitting position on the sofa, the blanket bunched around his waist.
"Dude..." his voice felt rusty, disused. "I guess I should have pegged you for a hockey fan. The cold stadiums, the pointless fights..."
Jack looked over at him, gave a little smirk, and took another long pull at his beer. "Oh, yah," he said in an exaggeratedly lazy, flat Northern accent. "We just lav oor hockey hair in MinneSOHta, don chya know."
Dean blinked, scratched at his chest, and couldn't for the life of him figure out how to respond to that. There was definitely something wrong with him. He should have had ten witty things at the tip of his tongue by this point.
Then it all came back. The woods, the spirit, his complete and utter failure to do anything useful. Jack had carried him back here. Carried him. God.
"How's your head, kid?" Jack asked more seriously, dropping the accent.
Dean gave him a sunny grin and knocked a knuckle against his skull. "Hard as a rock, old guy. Takes more than that to take me down."
Jack nodded in a way that clearly expressed that he did not in any form believe that statement at all. "There's more Advil on the end table there." He looked back to the TV. "You can come watch the game, if you want."
Dean stared at the back of the guy's head for a moment, then shrugged and looked over at the table. Two brown pills rested there in the puddle of yellow light from the lamp, next to a tall glass of water. There really wasn't any point in pretending to be stoic with a guy who had carried him back to his place. Dean took the Advil and drank the water.
He stood, testing his balance carefully as he went. His stocking feet held him up well enough. Pleased with his steadiness, Dean made his way over to another recliner, catty-corner to Jack's, and plopped down. He tried to watch the game, but it didn't make any sense. He'd never been much on hockey.
More bits and pieces were coming back to him, as he watched the colorful shapes whir to and fro on the gray-white ice. Dammit, he'd told Jack his last name, hadn't he? His real last name. And he'd promised to tell him all about the thing in the woods. Obviously his concussed brain could not be trusted with anything. Stupid head wound, screwing everything up.
He looked sidelong over at the bottle dangling from Jack's fingers. "Umm, don't suppose I could have one of those?" He pointed diffidently, glancing up at the man. Alcohol could only make this better. And surely Jack didn't really think he was too young for beer, did he?
Jack frowned, but it wasn't the condescending look of a man disparaging minors for their obsession with forbidden substances. "I don't think that's a good idea, what with your head and all. Pretty sure ol' Doc Frasier would have had my hide if I ever tried that with a concussion, but she always locked me in the infirmary so I didn't get a chance to find out."
Dean felt his mouth drop open. Before he could say anything, though, Jack lurched out of his chair with a mumbled, "Be right back."
Dean watched him march purposefully off into another part of the house. He heard rattling and clinking, doors opening and closing, and then Jack was back, holding two longnecks in one fist, a pleased grin on his face. "IBC," he said cheerfully. "Good for what ails ya."
He handed one frosty bottle to Dean and crashed down in his recliner with a satisfied sigh, already popping the top off his own drink. Dean glanced at the label on the one in his hand. Root beer. Well, better than nothing. He shrugged, and was just happy that he didn't have to struggle much to get the screw cap to release.
They sat there in companionable silence for a time, watching hockey, sipping their root beers. Dean noticed that Jack had carefully arranged a couple of ice packs on his raised knees, but he didn't say anything. "Old guy" was okay for a nickname, but it wasn't something you pointed out to someone in their own house while they were busy relaxing with a game and a cold one.
"So," Jack said, without any sort of preamble, glancing briefly at Dean before returning his eyes to the game. "I have this friend. Smart guy. I call him up and bother him when I have weird questions. He says that some people think that salt is good against, um, evil spirits. Something about symbolic purity or something, I don't know."
Dean felt a chill go down his spine, but then it dissipated and he relaxed completely, molding himself back into his recliner. Jack already knew. No point in worrying about it anymore.
"Um..." He cleared his throat, took another drink, then tried again, slowly, cautiously. "What exactly did you see, out there in the forest?"
Jack looked over at him seriously, meeting his eyes. "I'm not sure. It looked a little like a storm cloud that could move by itself, come down from the sky because it couldn't get close enough to hurt anyone up there. It grabbed you, held you against that tree. Like a spider in a web. It was gonna kill you. I shot it, and nothing happened. Not until I used your gun."
Dean looked down at his hands, loose in his lap, one curled limply around his root beer. "Yeah. Sounds about right."
"Your gun had salt in it."
Jack shifted uncomfortably and looked back to the game. "This smart guy I know. He's usually right, even about the really weird stuff. Especially about the really weird stuff."
Dean hesitated, then took another swig of root beer and nodded wearily. "Yeah. Ghosts. They're real. So are werewolves, death omens, revenants, and practically everything else you've ever heard of."
He peered over at Jack, waiting for a reaction.
Jack drained his root beer in one more pull. And he stared at the TV, though Dean knew that now, Jack wasn't following the game any better than he had been. Yeah, this whole paradigm shift thing was a bitch, all right.
The older man clapped his hands on the arms of the recliner and stood up once more, letting the ice packs slide off his legs. He took the nearly empty bottle from Dean's light grip and started heading back toward the kitchen. "Real stuff coming right up. I think maybe you can handle it after all."
In all of Jack's admittedly short acquaintance with Dean, he'd never seen the kid so unenthusiastic about running his mouth. Always ready with the quips and the sarcastic retorts, that was clear, but deeply unwilling to talk about anything that actually mattered. Daniel would call this justice. He'd pointed out pretty much the exact same thing about Jack more than once.
A couple of beers always helped loosened tongues, though, and at least Dean seemed relaxed and at peace here, in Jack's rustic little getaway. The TV was on a boring post-game show that Jack had all but muted, and evening was seeping in outside the cabin, deep blue-gray and full of stars.
"So." Jack rested his head against the back of the recliner, staring up at the ceiling. "Ghosts are real."
"Yeah." It seemed to be easier for Dean to talk when they weren't actually looking at each other.
"That's the one."
"You got it."
"As well as...what were the others things you said?"
"Werewolves, death omens, revenants, skinwalkers, witches, wendigos, black dogs, curses, spells, and magical freakin' wards." It came out in a kind of light sing-song, though Dean's voice wasn't slurred with drink. Everything was clear and sharp. "Nixies, pixies, nymphs, and elves. All kinds of elementals and other fey. Monsters in the closet, under the bed, in the dark outside your window. All real."
"In the sewers, too?"
Jack tipped the beer bottle to his mouth again and was disappointed to find it empty. "Vampires?"
"Nope. Far as I know that was just some Bavarian prince with hemophilia. Poor bastard."
He blew out a long breath. "Christ."
"I don't think so. I mean, I know my mom believed in that stuff, but I don't."
Jack slanted a sidelong look at the younger man, but Dean wasn't smiling. Just sitting there as serious as could be, eyes bright in the subdued light of the cabin. Jack hadn't missed the past tense combined with Dean's mom, either.
Well, that sucked.
"And this is... This is what you do."
"Yep. All my life, just about."
Dean fidgeted, and abruptly lurched to his feet. He didn't go far, though—just over to the mantel over the fireplace, where he stared at the pictures there with fierce and unwavering focus, studying each as if they held the secrets of the universe.
Jack thought about getting more beer, but decided that two was probably enough, what with Dean's head and all, and it would be cruel of him to indulge while denying his guest.
And, he had to admit, he didn't really need more alcohol to deal with this. Ghosts are real. Yeah, that...actually kinda made sense, in a crazy, totally screwed-up way. Why not? Why wouldn't they be real? In this universe, it seemed like practically every tall tale and made-up story turned out to be true, in some twisted, awful way.
"So...how do you get into this sort of life? Did they send a recruiter to your high school's job fair?"
"My dad does it," Dean answered absently, peering closer at one particular picture. "I do it, too. Family business. We're a good team." The kid's eyes darted back and forth, reading something in the picture.
He whirled around, swaying slightly with the movement, and fixed Jack with an accusing glare. "You're a general?"
Jack scowled. "Major General. Retired."
Oh God, the kid wasn't going to get all wide-eyed and expect Jack to fix everything now, was he? That was why Jack retired. He didn't like being The Man, having random strangers look at him like he knew everything, could take care of any problem. He liked being on a team, not having lackeys—he missed SG-1, not the SGC.
But Dean's mouth hardened, took on a mulish tilt. Jack sighed silently. Nah, this was gonna be a whole different kind of trouble.
The boy's eyes narrowed. "Army?"
Oddly, he flinched at that and looked away.
Jack inclined his head, bemused and strangely intrigued by that reaction. "You have a problem with the Air Force, kid?"
Dean mumbled something that sounded like "Don' like planes. Not s'posed t'go that high." He looked back, eyes fierce again. "You know all about me, now. Who are you? What did you think was out there in the woods?"
Jack set his empty beer bottle aside and stood up to be on eye-level with the other guy, and also so he could stick his hands casually in his pockets. It just felt better.
"My name is Jonathan O'Neill. Jack to my friends. I was born in Chicago, but spent much of my growing up years here in Minnesota. When I was old enough, I joined the Air Force. I flew over Iraq. I crashed, was captured, spent time as a prisoner of war. I was in the special forces for awhile, did things I'm not proud of and can't talk about. I was married, had a son. He died. I got divorced, never remarried. Later I was recruited for some very, very classified stuff, and I was there until I retired. I like astronomy, Canadian beer, opera music, classy leather jackets, and the Simpsons. That's who I am. Jack O'Neill. Is that enough for you?"
He met Dean's eyes, forthright, challenging. It was true—he knew far more about Dean than the kid was obviously comfortable with. And now he had returned the favor. What else was there to say?
Dean blinked first, breaking their little undeclared staring contest. He ran a hand through his hair, looked back to the pictures on the mantel. Now he understood that picture of the kid with the eighties haircut in the middle, all by itself; now he understood why there weren't any more pictures of the boy growing up. He was gone. Jack's son. Dead.
Shit. That sucked.
All the other pictures, though... Jack young, in desert camo, arm slung around a burly guy with a rough face and a full grin. Jack in his dress blues, that name tag that had alerted Dean to his rank, the fruit salad of medals on his chest. Jack and more buddies, many pictures with the same three—a big black guy with a serious expression, a gorgeous blond with sparkling blue eyes and the best smile Dean had ever seen, a geeky dude with glasses, sometimes with long floppy hair, sometimes with short. Pictures in uniform, in civvies, in all kinds of terrain. He could see the way they were with each other, comfortable, worn-in like old, high-quality boots. The kind of friendship that could take anything, weather any adversity, simultaneously as tough as hard leather and as easy as cream pie. Jack had been part of a team. A really, really good one.
It made him ache for the old days, for Sam at his back, Dad in front of him, the moon above and a hunt waiting, a bloodthirsty son of a bitch just hours away from taking a bullet from the gun in his hand. Always together. Always strong. A three-fold cord is not easily broken. What were they now? Fractured. Lost. Alone.
This wasn't the way it was supposed to be.
Finally, he looked back at the older man, standing there with his fists jammed in his pockets, eyes hard, feet spread, ready to continue their verbal match. Dean didn't try to hide the weariness in his face, his voice. "Yeah, that's enough for me."
Jack looked surprised, then shuffled his feet a little and sat back down, letting all of the tension run out of his body. Dean hesitated, then sat down, too. He hadn't missed the fact that Jack had deliberately side-stepped giving an explanation for what he thought was going on in the woods. But he'd mentioned being in special forces, working on classified stuff... Dean could put together a guess. A spy with stealth equipment, maybe, or some other cockamamie government cover-up bullshit.
But Jack hadn't called in his team. He'd been out there alone. Armed to the teeth and ready for anything, but alone.
"So you're retired, huh?" Dean asked, voice suddenly light, almost teasing.
A little smile flirted over Jack's mouth. "Yup."
"And you thought you'd go after an 'invisible murderer,'" he used his fingers to put gigantic quotes in the air, "all alone, out there in the Minnesota woods, for...what? For fun? Is that what retired Air Force major generals do for fun?"
"Oh, yeah. It was all that and a barrel of monkeys."
Dean chuckled and leaned back in his seat, feeling his eyelids droop in amused contentment. "Dude, you are freakin' Rambo."
"That's me. And you? Where's your dad? You said you were a team."
The contentment fled, dissipating like smoke in the wind, there then gone. Dean felt his mouth twitch, but kept himself from frowning. "He had a job. I had another one. We'll meet up again when we're done."
"So he lets you go up against this stuff all alone?"
The older man sounded faintly incredulous, almost outraged. Dean could feel his shoulders hunching in reaction, and it made him suddenly, desperately angry. He didn't like it. He shouldn't be feeling defensive about the choices his dad made. This was all too familiar.
He deliberately hid all that, kept his voice smooth and even. "Dude, I'm twenty-six."
"So are a lot of people on teams." Jack stopped himself abruptly, looking away. "Look, never mind. I didn't mean to get into that. Just...tell me what we're supposed to do. What's the next step?"
Dean blinked, slow and disbelieving. "We? Uh, no, old guy. No 'we.' You really ought to let me handle this. Don't you get that now? Like you said, it's what I do. And it's what you...don't."
The muscles on Jack's jaw bunched, but he didn't rise to the bait, didn't lash out like Dean was expecting. "No, kid. I think you'd be surprised by just how close this is to what I do. Or did, before I retired." He shrugged, insolent and lazy. "Like you can ever retire from something like this. Listen, your dad isn't here right now, but I am. You need someone to watch your back. Think you would have gotten out of those woods without me? That thing... It's going after young people. It didn't go after me, it went straight for you. And it would have killed you. I know that as well as I know anything."
"Well, you're the one who made me drop my shotgun. I might have been able to get it if you hadn't distracted me." Dean tried to get up a sense of outrage, but it wasn't coming. He was just freakin' tired. And his head hurt like a son-of-a-bitch.
"Maybe you would have been able to get off a round in time. Maybe not. Point is, you don't have to do this alone, kid. And if you don't have to, do you really want to?"
Dean rolled his head over to give the old guy an assessing stare. No, he didn't. He'd never wanted to do this alone, never. It was a family thing. It was supposed to be a family thing. This wasn't his choice, never would have been.
Jack knew it, too. Dean could see it in the dark brown eyes, deep and focused and intense. The older man knew him way, way too well. How could you know someone so well in just a few hours? It was sort of terrifying.
Finally, Dean just gave a little nod, accepting. "Yeah. Okay."
Jack grinned, small, not triumphant or exultant in his win, just pleased. Happy. It was weird. Weird and wonderful, that was what it was.
"So, what's next?"
Dean let the corner of his mouth lift in an answering smile. "Well, we gotta find out what it actually is. And then we find out how to kill it. And then we kill it."
"Sounds like a plan."
Yeah. It was a good plan.
The next morning, Jack woke up, stared at the ceiling for a little bit, remembered everything that he had found out about the world last night, and decided that it was definitely time for waffles. Every problem could be improved by the presence of waffles. He paused momentarily, one slipper on and one off, thinking about missing sons and missing dads. Well, almost every problem could be improved by the presence of waffles. They certainly couldn’t hurt.
On his way to the kitchen, he paused at the guest room doorway to peek in at his visitor. Dean was sprawled face-down on the bed, taking up every inch of space, arms and legs askew in the kind of position that only the young and the very tired found comfortable. Jack could still see the slightly-matted patch of hair on the back of his head that hid a butterfly bandage and a misshapen lump, but if he hadn’t known it was there he wouldn’t have noticed it. A bottle of Advil and a half-drunk glass of water waited on the nightstand nearby, ready for when Dean woke.
Bacon. Bacon also made things better. Jack started some frying, pleased that the thought had occurred to him, then grabbed the mix from the cupboard and started whipping up a double batch. Manly men like them needed a lot of waffles.
The first waffle was just about ready to come out of the iron when Dean shuffled into the kitchen, yawning and rubbing sleep from his eyes. He blinked at Jack for a few seconds, watching him flip the bacon with one casual, efficient movement, finely honed from years of manning the grill at team barbecues. “Dude, it smells like freakin’ heaven in here.”
“If heaven smells like waffles and bacon, yeah.” Jack used the spatula in his hand to gesture imperiously at the table.
Dean sat down without protest. “If heaven is just a construct of your mind rather than an actual place and will be whatever you imagine it to be, then yeah, my heaven smells like waffles and bacon. Always assuming, of course, that there’s more than just nothing after death.”
Jack stared. “You always this metaphysical in the morning, kid?”
Dean looked startled, realizing what he had just said, then grinned that obfuscating smirk and leaned back in his chair, tucking it away. “Nah. That bump must have knocked some things around. I’m just channeling Sam, I guess.”
“Sam?” Jack kept his eyes on the waffle iron. Once the waffle was at its peak perfection, he would only have a few seconds to flip it out and onto a plate before it started to turn brown and not-as-delicious. A warrior’s reflexes served him well in these situations.
“My brother. He’s at Stanford.”
Dean clammed up and turned his head to look out the window. Jack nodded, understanding. The younger man hadn’t meant to be so open, so vulnerable. That was what waking up in a strange place did to you, sometimes. He probably wasn’t going to get anything personal out of him for the rest of day.
“I know a Sam, too,” he offered. Waffle! He opened the iron and flipped it out, golden perfection on a plate. “Samantha Carter. Smartest woman in the world. I’d lay good money on it.” More than that, he’d laid his life on it, and the lives of everyone he knew. More than once. And never regretted it.
“She the gorgeous blonde in your pictures?”
Jack added a few strips of bacon and walked over to plop the plate down in front of Dean. “That’s the one. Don’t let her hear you call her that, though. She’ll kick your ass across two states and never bat an eye.”
Dean smirked. “You sound like you speak from experience.”
“Kid, I have never disparaged a woman in my life.” Jack poured in more batter and gently closed the iron. “All I said was something vague about scientists on a military mission, and she bit me off at the knee. Something about reproductive organs—I didn’t quite catch all of it. Anyway, point is,” he pointed at Dean with a bacon-greased fork for emphasis, “you do not mess with Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter. She will humiliate you in front of everyone you know and look damn good doing it.”
Dean nodded solemnly and picked up his fork to dig in, only then realizing that something very, very important was missing. “Dude, no syrup?”
After a frenzied search of the cupboards, pantry, fridge, and under the sink, Jack had to admit the truth. He had forgotten to buy syrup.
He dropped the pale substitutions he’d been able to find in front of Dean. “We have powdered sugar, strawberry jam, and peanut butter. Your choice.”
Dean stared at them dubiously, then looked up, green eyes far too big. “It’s not the same.”
Doomed. Jack was absolutely doomed.
“I know. We’ll get some syrup in town, okay?”
Dammit, he was reacting exactly the same way he did when Daniel looked up at him like that. He was absolutely defenseless against this. Stupid puppy-dog eyes.
“Jack, your waffle!”
Crap. The steam rising from the iron was getting a little too dark for comfort. Jack hustled over to the counter and rescued it just before it started burning. Great. His waffle was going to be tough. Life just wasn’t fair.
Dean hoovered up his waffle—sans syrup—and stuffed a piece of bacon into his mouth as he stood, already reaching for the pitcher full of batter. “Sit down, old guy. Let me show you how it’s done.”
After a few minutes it became clear that the kid was just as competent in the kitchen as he was in the woods, and Jack sat down and let him have the job. Dean even found an ancient, crusty can of real maple syrup that Jack couldn’t remember buying, tucked in the very back corner of the pantry under two bags of navy beans.
The waffles were fantastic.
“So, what’s next?” Jack asked.
They still sat at the table, digesting. Both of them had eaten a lot of waffles. Toward the end, Dean had gotten a little bored of syrup and tried one with peanut butter, just for variety. It had been really, really good.
Dean took a sip of his juice. (Jack had insisted that he drink some, just poured the glass and stuck it in his hand, because “balanced breakfast, kid, gotta start the day right,” even though Jack himself was drinking coffee, and despite the unfairness of it Dean didn’t feel like arguing with a retired Air Force major general who had just made him waffles and bacon for breakfast. So he drank it.) “Well, we have to go pick up my baby. She’s probably getting lonely, out there all alone. And you didn’t leave my stuff lying around in the woods, did you?”
“Of course not. I went back for your shotgun and the stupid Walkman. They’re in the truck. Your knife and hip flask are in the top drawer of the nightstand in the guest room.” Jack slurped at his coffee, and almost choked. “Did you say your baby?”
“Yeah. My poor baby, out there all on her own without me to take care of her.... Sorry, honey, I never would have left you on purpose....” Dean let a bit of soulful wistfulness into his voice, just to see what it would do to Jack.
The older man scowled. “We’re talking about a car, aren’t we?”
Okay, that hadn’t lasted very long. Dean nodded and sat up a little straighter, business-like. “I left her on a back road about an hour’s hike from where we met up. All my gear is there, except what I was carrying.”
“Yeah, I think I know the road you’re talking about. We can stop by there easy enough. But what about the...the ghost, the spirit or whatever? What do we do about that?”
Dean narrowed his eyes at him, resting his chin on his hand, elbow on the table. “You sure you want to get into this? Because it’s not too late, man. You can drop me with my baby and let me take care of it, and you’ll never have to think about it again.”
“What, and let you have all the fun?” Jack smirked, though Dean knew that it wasn’t quite as cocky and bull-headed as the old guy would have him believe. “Nah, I’m in this now. You’re not getting rid of me so easily.”
He said it without thinking, then looked away, out the window, fingers tight on his juice glass. This was too familiar. This was how it had been four years ago, when hunting was the most exhilarating thing imaginable, his dad and his brother solid at his shoulders. That certainty, that knowing that they were doing good, saving people, destroying evil, that the Winchester men were the toughest sons-of-bitches in the world and nothing could stand against them.
Then Sam left. And Dad. They hadn’t meant to tear him apart, he knew that, they were only doing what they thought was best for themselves. But he couldn’t get used to this again. He couldn’t depend on it. Jack was great, easily the most awesome civilian he’d ever met, but he couldn’t think like that. He couldn’t say I know, not about this, couldn’t let the thought exist anywhere in his head. That way led madness.
The concussion had to be screwing with him. That was all this was.
So he looked back, grinning bright and wide, and said something unreasonably smart-assed, and Jack frowned and shot back at him, just as sharp, and they sniped at each other all through cleaning up and doing the dishes. A brief break while they showered and dressed, insulting each other as they passed in the hall, “kid,” “old guy,” “don’t leave the towels on the floor,” “don’t put your back out picking them up,” and Dean pulled on his dirty jeans from yesterday like sheathing himself in an old skin, familiar and worn. All the way out to the truck, driving along the back roads, Dean making fun of Jack for driving like the old guy he was, Jack making fun of Dean for getting the roads mixed up and forcing them to backtrack twice to finally find the Impala.
Even that was too easy, too familiar, the quips and remarks they tossed at each other, not actually meaning anything, just doing it because that was how they both worked. But Dean didn’t let himself think about it anymore. He had a partner for this particular hunt, that was all, and that was cool, but it wasn’t anything more than that. Jack was a good guy, and Dean liked hanging with him. They would kill this thing together, and then Dean would get back to his father and his real life.
Jack had to admit it—Dean really did love that car. And “my baby” was probably the least disturbing thing he could call it.
The moment they found the long, black classic parked off the road under the overhang of trees, Dean didn’t even wait for the truck to roll to a stop before he flung open the door and jogged over. It was a beaut of a muscle car, Jack admitted silently, a sixties Chevy Impala, sleek and shiny, sex on wheels. Dean circled it—her—a couple of times, gently brushing a few fallen leaves off the roof, devouring every inch with his eyes. Then he lay down on the hood with both arms spread wide, eyes shut, cheek against the smooth, polished surface, a sweet smile curving his lips.
Jack really ought to look away—it was obviously a very private moment between a man and his car. Instead he exited the truck and strolled over to the Impala, hands deep in his pockets. “Should I leave you two alone?”
“Just...gimme a minute,” Dean said softly.
“Sixty seconds starting now, kid.” And he started to count down, slowly and deliberately, and very, very loud.
“Jerk,” Dean muttered, but he stayed down, laying on the car until Jack got all the way to “One.” Then he popped up like a jack-in-a-box, cocky smile firmly in place, once more all hard candy shell and no gooey soft chocolate. That act wasn’t fooling Jack anymore, though. “’Kay, I’m done. Where to next?”
Jack shrugged. “I dunno. Town? You said we gotta find out what this thing is. You don’t know?”
Dean settled back, leaning against the Impala’s grill, suddenly dead serious. “It reacted to the salt, so I know it’s some kind of spirit. Probably a ghost. Some ghosts follow patterns, and this one certainly does—always young people, always in the same patch of woods, and I think it kills with fear.”
“Is that what you felt? Out there, yesterday?”
The full lips tightened, and the answer was quiet. “Yeah.” Dean looked away, then back, and his voice was certain and solid again. “It spoke to me. Offered peace and quiet or some such shit, I don’t know. But I didn’t feel peace. And it sure as hell wasn’t quiet.”
“You sure it’s a ghost? Last night you said ‘we have to find out what it is,’ like you didn’t know.”
“Dude, last night I was still in shock over being hauled to some old guy’s gingerbread house deep in the Minnesota woods without my consent.”
“Worried about your honor, kiddo? I solemnly swear, I’m not a switch hitter.”
“Yeah, but do you play on my team?”
“Depends on which one that is.”
Dean grinned, brief and white. “Hey, man, I’m on the side of the angels.”
“There’s some debate over which team they’re on, too.” Jack shook his head abruptly. “Never mind. This metaphor just got far too stretched for me. But, look, you know that you’re too young for me, right?” He put on a very kind, reassuring tone. “Maybe when you’ve had a little more mileage.”
Dean tried to pull a sardonic expression, but instead just looked far too old for his years. “Yeah. More mileage. That’s what I need.”
God, the poor kid looked so damned tired. Jack felt his arms jerk a little, hands almost sliding out of his pockets, and had to resist the urge to go over there and hug the bejeezus out of him. Considering the content of their conversation, that probably wouldn’t go over too well.
Instead he scratched his nose for a little bit. “Right. Anyway. Ghost. You think it’s a ghost. You’re sure?”
“Slept on it. Pretty sure now. Thing disappeared when you shot it with the salt, right?”
Jack had to think back. That corner of time in the woods was a little blurry in his memory, edged with shock, the world tipping over an edge that he hadn’t even known was there. But that one image was clear, hard-edged, the thing holding onto Dean, leaching him white, the blast of the shotgun, the smell of salt in the leaves. As soon as the salt hit the dark, cloudy figure, it had dissipated like a flock of birds started by a sudden noise in the center of their company. Pieces shooting off, disappearing, sinking into trunk and loam.
“Yeah. Yeah, it disappeared. Nothing left of it.”
Dean nodded. “No corporeal form, so it’s not a revenant or a draug, which was my first thought, considering the cultural heritage around these parts. It could have a few tricks up its...well, not sleeves, obviously, since it doesn’t have any. But mostly there are just two ways to get rid of ghosts.”
Jack made a little twirling motion with one finger. Keep it coming, kid.
The young man obliged. “You can ask it to leave, if it’s benevolent, just a lost soul or something. Not an option here. Or you find the body it belonged to and salt and burn the bones. That breaks the connection, and the thing moves on.”
Jack waited for more, but Dean just sat there, gazing off at something over Jack’s shoulder. After a bit, he got impatient and snapped his fingers to catch the guy’s attention. “Come on, Dean, you gotta tell me more. I need to know all the angles, everything you can tell me about what we’re up against. Don’t leave anything out. I want to know it all. Tell me everything.”
Dean blinked. “Everything. You want to know everything about hunting ghosts? That’s a freaking Encyclopedia Brittanica, man.”
“Then start with Volume A.”
Jack just stood there, looking back at him, utterly serious. Major General, Dean remembered. This guy was a leader, a tactician. He wanted every detail about the situation, everything that could give him even the slightest edge, help keep his people alive.
It reminded him of his father. John Winchester didn’t enjoy research, particularly, not the way Sam had, but he did it, meticulous and thorough, unturning every rock, unearthing every skeleton. So he could deal with anything. So he could keep his sons safe.
Dean’s outlook was a little more straightforward. Just tell him what to do and let him do it. He understood the value of research, he really did, but he didn’t need to know everything. Just enough.
Dammit, why was everything reminding him of his family this morning? This was supposed to be a simple hunt—go in, kill the bad guy, get out. Instead, he’d been thinking more about his little brother in the past two hours than he had in the previous year.
He laughed, turned away, ran a hand through his hair. “I’m not really the man to ask, old guy. I’m not a walking library. All I know is that now, it’s time to go to nearby towns and start reading old newspapers and schmoozing the locals, figuring out who that ghost is and where the body’s buried. That’s the next step. Not more talking.”
Jack nodded slowly. “Okay. We can do that.” He pointed firmly at Dean. “But this conversation isn’t over. I want you to keep talking, tell me what I need to know.”
“That’s fair.” Dean started to move around to the driver’s side of the Impala, then hesitated, looked at Jack’s truck still sitting there idling. He’d been listening for following footsteps, waiting for Jack to follow him, take shotgun, his new partner. Already forgetting that this wasn’t the same. “Uh, back to your place, then? We can drop your old beater off, take my car into town.”
Behind the wheel again, Dean let his hands rest on cool leather, the familiar grooves that held his fingers with the familiarity of an old, trusted friend. This was where he belonged, his first romance, his childhood home. This was where he wanted to be. He started the car and listened to the engine rumble into a purr, warm and throaty, welcoming him back.
Jack led the way back to the cabin, Dean following in the Impala, music turned up as loud as he could stand it. The bump on his head throbbed in time with the beat, and he propped his left elbow against the door, rubbing a hand over his chin. He could peel out, turn right when Jack turned left, leave this crazy-ass hunt behind and go find a simpler one.
No, Jack would notice, hunt him down. This was one stubborn old dude. Scary, too, and very good with guns as well as hand-to-hand. Screw that. Dean had enough problems.
Back at the cabin, he parked, then sat there for a moment and let the engine run, just feeling the comfort sink into his skin. Jack leaned against the truck’s door, waiting patiently. In a little while that man was going to come over here, sit beside Dean in the passenger’s seat, where someone else was supposed to be. Dean had invited him. Hadn’t meant to, just had.
But this was what Dean did, right? Dad and Sam researched obsessively before setting out. Dean worked more by what he felt in his bones, his stomach. By instinct. Instinct had opened his mouth, said those words, opened his home to a near-stranger. If Dean couldn’t trust that, what could he trust?
He reached forward and turned the key back, then got out of the Impala and went around the back to pop the trunk. “C’mere, old guy. I got something to show ya.”
Jack ambled over, tugging on the brim of his cap to shade his eyes. He came around to Dean’s side, then stared down at the contents of the trunk. Guns, knives, unidentifiable bags of various occult supplies, the dreamcatcher hanging from the lid.
He didn’t even blink. “Nice arsenal, kid.”
“Thanks.” Dean dug down through the layers of crap, got his hands on a burlap sack and dragged it up. “You said you wanted to know everything I could tell you about hunting ghosts. Well, here’s a start.”
He sat right down there in the dirt and dumped out the sack, separating the various articles and laying them in untidy rows. Jack mumbled something about his knees, rolled his eyes, then sat down next to him. And Dean started teaching him everything he knew.
Microfiche. Jack blinked and rubbed his eyes, trying to force them to focus, blurry and crossed from staring at the glowing screen for who-knows-how-long. If microfiche still existed anywhere, of course it would be in the offices of small newspapers in tiny towns in the woods of Minnesota. The internet had come here eventually, but apparently scanners hadn’t made it yet.
Jack glanced over to where Dean sat at the table, flipping through archives of physical papers. He’d been an idiot, giving the smart-mouthed kid the easier job. Dean had shown no appreciation for the consideration, merely grumbling about the evils of research and the horrifying fact that it had to be done at all.
As Jack watched, though, Dean absently reached a hand up to touch the back of his head, then jerked his fingers away before they touched down, forehead wrinkling momentarily before he smoothed it away. Oh yeah. That was why Jack had let him have the regular papers. Dumb idea. Now they would both have headaches, instead of just one of them having a really, really bad one.
“Found anything?” Jack asked. As he had been asking every ten minutes or so for, oh, a couple of hours, maybe.
Dean glanced up, lips pursed. “I’m not hiding anything from you, dude. The minute I spot something, I’ll let you know.”
“Yeah, sure.” Jack looked back at the screen, and felt his eyes immediately crossing again, retaliating for the indignity of the past few hours. His brain was throwing in the towel. Enough of this. I’m a retired Air Force Major General. I don’t have to put up with microfiche.
An exasperated huff at yet one more interruption, and Dean threw his head to the side to look at him, eyes wide and eyebrows so high that they nearly cleared his hairline, though his voice remained perfectly calm and composed. It was the way you would treat a toddler who kept asking why why why. “Yes, Jack?”
“I’m just gonna go stretch my legs for a bit, okay? I’ll be right back.”
“Sure. Do whatever you gotta do.”
Jack exited the back room, through the little news den and into the foyer, where he gave the receptionist a friendly smile and tip of the chin. She blushed, still fully under the spell of the combined Winchester-O’Neill charm. They had probably laid it on a little thick when they came in earlier, claiming to be researching their genealogy, uncle and nephew.
Outside, Jack slipped around a corner and flipped open his cell phone, hitting two familiar buttons with hardly a thought. The phone on the other end rang twice, then again, and he hoped that this wouldn’t be one of those times, when Jack would end up just letting it ring and ring and ring until he got annoyed enough to send an email, even though he far preferred vocal contact. Daniel still hadn’t gotten around to setting up voice mail, darn him, and how hard was that, anyway?
But he picked up on the third ring, a little out of breath, voice bright with curiosity, words tumbling over each other. “Jack? Hey, I was hoping you would call back. I wasn’t really paying attention last time—was in the middle of translating something for SG-11, high priority, they’re heading back tomorrow—so it didn’t occur to me till later, but did you ask me something about monsters? Monsters and salt? That’s weird, even for you. Did I actually answer your question? I don’t really remember. I was busy.”
Jack grinned. He could see Daniel in his mind’s eye, leaning forward in his chair, expressive eyes sharply focused, fully engaged in this new puzzle. “Yeah, I kinda got that impression. You answered. You were right, too.”
“I was? Oh, that’s good. Wait, how do you know? What’s going on, Jack? Are you in some kind of trouble?” Daniel’s voice went stern. “Do I need to send some marines to help you out? I will, you know. Landry listens to me.”
“Good for him. And I’m fine, thanks. Listen, I was hoping you’d be able to help out with a little research. You’re at your computer, right? You still have access to all those databases and stuff?”
“Yes, yes, top secret, hush hush, the combined knowledge of the United States government ready at my fingertips. You’re going to have to convince me that I ought to help you, though. What’s this about?”
Jack reeled for a moment, barely able to think. What’s this about? It’s about the whole world being turned on its ear, Daniel, it’s about monsters in the closet and ghosts in the graveyard and poor helpless kids being killed before their time, and I can’t stand by, I can’t, so don’t even think about asking it. Oh, and there’s this boy, this young man, and we’re kind of working together now. I think he’s just as cut off from the world as you were when you came back from Abydos, missing family like missing a limb, and he trusts me now, sort of, and I can’t betray that.
“I’m just looking into something that I think the local authorities might have missed, that’s all. It’s probably nothing. I just want to make sure.”
He could hear the exhaled breath, the touch of relaxation in Daniel’s voice. “Well, if it turns out not to be nothing, you’ll get backup, right?”
“Yeah, I promise. This is just...curiosity. Saw a story in the newspaper that got my hackles up.”
“What about the monsters and the salt?”
“Oh, that. It was this stupid cable movie about some myth, can’t even remember the title, but I remembered how much you like to pick those apart. You were busy, though, so I figured I should leave you alone.”
“Oh. Okay.” Jack could almost hear the wheels turning in Daniel’s lightning-flash mind, could almost see the little nod of acceptance. “All right. What do you need to know?”
Fifteen minutes later Jack tucked a page of notes into his jacket’s breast pocket, then walked back into the archive room. He found Dean still buried in paper, fingers digging through his hair as he held his head in his hands. That little frown of concentration looked positively painful.
“Hey, kid, let’s take a break. The diner across the street serves the best pie in three states. Worth the trip.”
Dean’s head shot up, eyes bright and eager. “Pie? Oh, man, I love pie.”
Jack smiled. “Yeah, I kinda figured you did.”
Jack was right. The pie was awesome. Dean dug his fork through flaky crust, into succulent, tender apple slices glazed with sugar and spices, and didn’t even care that Jack had ordered for them both, and gotten him milk instead of the soda Dean wanted. Milk was worth it when it came with this kind of pie.
“Did I tell ya or did I tell ya?” Jack asked, lifting his own glass of milk in a half-assed toast. “Best pie in three states.”
Dean did not dignify this rhetorical question with a response, merely rolled his eyes heavenward in mute appreciation and scooped up another gigantic bite. He almost didn’t care that he’d only managed to find a whole load of nothing in the newspaper office. No deaths that fit the pattern besides those first three, no obits that indicated a life cut short, a spirit left angry and wandering. They had gone back twenty years in the past few hours, and nothing to show for it. God, his head was killing him.
They would just have to dig deeper, that was all. And in the meantime, Dean dug into his pie.
Jack chose that moment to casually draw a folded-up notebook page from his breast pocket and slide it across the table. Dean froze, staring. “What’s that?”
“My notes.” Jack reached over to unfold the page, and turned it so it was right-side-up for Dean. “Deaths in the woods over the past, um, couple hundred years or something.”
Dean narrowed his eyes at the crabbed scrawl. The names and dates and brief descriptions had been written hastily, all in a rush, one word bleeding into the next. “You didn’t get this from the microfiche. I never saw you write anything down.”
“Sure I did. You just didn’t notice.”
He looked up and did his best to stab the old guy through with his eyes, tapping the fork irritably on the plate. “You stepped out to stretch your legs. What else did you do?”
Jack shrugged, a short rise and fall of the shoulders, insolent and obtuse. “Had a chat with Babe the Blue Ox. He was just hanging around, waiting for Paul.”
Dean felt an involuntary little laugh shake through his chest, but he didn’t let it escape his mouth. “You’re keeping secrets.”
“Why, hello there, Mr. Pot. I’m Mr. Kettle, also known as ‘old guy’. Nice to meetcha. Is it okay if I call you ‘kid’ from now till the end of eternity? Or how about ‘stupid kid’? That seems slightly more appropriate.”
Okay, he had deserved that. Dean looked back to the notes, feeling his irritation dissipate. “All right, fine, you called some government weasel who used to help you out before you retired. That smart guy you mentioned earlier? Never mind. Doesn’t matter.” He flapped a hand in dismissal, then ran a finger down the descriptions of deaths, discarding the ones caused by hunting accidents, fights, floods, things like that. “These all happened in the same patch of woods?”
“Near enough. You go back too far and they’re just describing ‘that stand of hickory trees out near Henderson’s place,’ but I figure it counts.”
“Huh.” Dean looked at the dates of the deaths he’d weeded out from the list. There didn’t seem to be much of a pattern. People died mysteriously in clusters of five to ten, and then the woods were silent for a time. Decades, even, but even then there were sometimes single anomalous deaths scattered with years between them. So no clear cycle, no dormancy of exactly twenty-one years or anything simple like that. This spirit was a little more chaotic than some. That was okay. Dean could deal with that.
He scanned back up to the first name, the first death before the mysterious ones started. Susanna Milner, 1853. Died of exposure. Daughter of a pioneer family, lost and wandering till she died? That would be impetus enough for a spirit to hold on to the world, to drag others in to try to fill her loneliness. The first mysterious death happened in the same year.
“We have to find out more about this chick.” Dean pulled a pen from his pocket and underlined the name, then gave the page back to Jack. “Think your buddy can help us out again?”
Jack grimaced, studying the page. “Probably. But there’s also the library, you lazy bum.”
“Hey, you’re the one who took this shortcut in the first place.” Dean carved out a forkful of pie and swallowed it down with a gulp of milk. “Don’t want to raise suspicions with another request, huh? I get it.”
“The library will also be better for local stuff, stupid kid.”
Dean paused with a mouthful of pastry and pointed a fork at the old guy. “Hey, I let that go. You could show the same courtesy.”
The corner of Jack’s mouth twitched. “Don’t talk with your mouth full, buddy.”
“Yeah, that’s much less condescending.” Still, Dean swallowed his mouthful, then stared mournfully down at his plate, which was now empty. “Does this town even have a library?”
“No, but the next one over does. About half an hour, not too bad.”
“Great.” Dean clapped his hands and stood, pausing to chug the rest of his milk. “Road trip! That means I get to introduce you to the magic that is Metallica.”
Jack groaned as he rose to his feet, and Dean knew it wasn’t because of his knees. His face was already pained just at the prospect. “I take it back. Half an hour is bad. Very bad.”
The Maple Creek Township Library was a two-story brick and stone affair in the middle of a residential neighborhood, one of those rounded turret-like things on the side of the building, a tiny gravel parking lot in front. It looked like it had been a house once, renovated to hold nothing but books. Tall trees stood all around like sleepy sentinels, listing, crouching over the parking lot, shading the homey, shuttered windows with branches exploding in a riot of new spring green.
Dean pulled into the parking lot, then just sat there, letting the current Metallica song run its course, bobbing his head to the beat and tapping on the steering wheel. Occasionally he glanced over to smirk at Jack or raise an eyebrow, like he was winning some kind of competition. Jack just stared at him blankly and waited for it to be over. It took awhile. These songs were long.
At last the tape clicked into the hissing static between songs, and Dean turned the key back, then flopped back in the seat with a sigh of contentment. “So?”
“Did I tell ya or did I tell ya? Metallica rules!”
“Yeah, you told me.” Jack turned sideways slightly, facing the kid head-on to deliver his speech. “Actually, I kind of liked it. It was very...operatic. Not too different at all from the stuff I listen to voluntarily.”
Dean did a hilarious little double-take, eyes flying wide, mouth dropping open. “O...operatic?” he choked out. “It was operatic? As in, like an opera?”
“Yeah, definitely. So huge, so epic.” Jack spread his hands in illustration. “The repeating themes, the soaring melodies, the complex instrumentals, the freaking length of the songs. Not to mention the emotions expressed so very clearly and repetitively. Just like an aria.”
“Yes, an aria. You know, the sections of an opera that are sung just in solo or duet, the main characters pouring their souls out to the audience. It’s usually all about how much love stinks, or politics are screwing them over, or how they’re ready to die. Exactly like Metallica.”
Dean had the blank look of a computer struggling valiantly to process conflicting information. The wheel was spinning but nothing was happening. “Metallica. Is exactly like an opera.”
“Sure is. Well, Metallica has more percussion. And it’s in English.” Jack blinked thoughtfully. “And I’m having trouble figuring out what the plot is. I’m sure it’s a tragedy, though, just like most operas.”
“You’re messing with me.” Dean sounded completely certain, having found an explanation that fit everything to his satisfaction.
“Nope. Utterly serious.” Jack kept his face straight, and Dean’s expression went slack again in uncertainty, floundering around in an attempt to compute. Jack added a little nod, grave and slow.
Even he wasn’t sure quite where the line was, though. He was laying it on thick, definitely, but he was also pretty sure most of that was true. And he thought that maybe he was starting to get a tiny bit fond of classic rock, but surely that was ridiculous. He hadn’t cared for it much when it wasn’t classic, but brand new.
But hey, a guy’s tastes could change. He used to think that all scientists were useless geeks. A select few had proven that broad assumption wrong, though he was sure that it was still mostly accurate.
Dean meanwhile, stared helplessly out the windshield, blinking. Jack clapped his shoulder and got out of the car. “C’mon, let’s go do this research thing.”
The young man followed him slowly to the building and stumbled up the steps, expression still fixed in contemplation mode. Jack opened the door, sleigh bells ringing at the motion, and held it for his companion, arm extended in courtly invitation. Dean gave him a glare, but stepped inside with an abrupt air of confidence.
The librarian’s desk was only a scant few feet from the door, every other inch of space in the building taken up with shelves and tables and computer desks, aisles barely wide enough for one person to walk down, as long as that person was fairly skinny. The woman sitting at the desk was relatively young, short dark hair, thin-rimmed glasses, a pretty, though not beautiful, face, and a nametag that said her name was Marcy, Reference Librarian.
Jack watched Dean switch gears, smooth and sweet as a finely tuned stock car, from irritation to beaming charisma without a step between. “Hey, there, you look like the lady with the answers.”
That sideways little grin, a green-eyed wink, and the librarian was gone, solid gone. So completely and quickly melted in the sun of Dean’s smile that Jack firmly expected there to be nothing left of her but a sticky puddle on the desk by the time they left. The other patrons would just have to fend for themselves, because they weren’t going to be getting any help from her in the foreseeable future.
Jack sighed. It was not entirely dissimilar from going on missions with one Dr. Daniel Jackson, triple PhD and all-around cutie-pie.
“All right, let’s try this one,” Marcy the Reference Librarian said cheerfully, emerging from deep in the stacks with yet another humongous book already falling apart at the seams. This one had a gray cover, though, so that automatically set it apart from the five books already on the table between Dean and Jack, open to various chapters that did not contain information about Susanna Milner.
Dean pushed the books around to make some room, and Jack pretended to be interested. “Ah, that looks great, Marcy,” Dean said. “What’s that one about?”
“It’s a memoir by Vince Emerson, covering his life here during the mid-nineteenth century. This is the only copy in existence that we know of—it’s handwritten.”
“Oh, goody.” Dean accepted the heavy tome from her hands and set it carefully on the table in front of him, eyeing it as if afraid that it might explode. He looked up at Jack and smiled grimly. “That means we get to have lots of fun decoding an old man’s handwriting.”
“It’s not too bad, really,” Marcy said. “The real problem is the rambling. It’s not exactly what you might call coherent. He’ll talk about incidents from his old age and his youth in the same paragraph, and sometimes forgets to finish the stories. Even the interesting ones.”
“You’ve read it, huh?” Dean gave her a sympathetic look.
“Only pages here and there.” Marcy shrugged. “It can get pretty dull out here when no one needs a reference librarian. But if he knew Susanna Milner, he probably mentioned her somewhere in there.”
“Excellent. I’ll give it a shot. Thanks, Marcy.”
She blushed and smiled, moving back toward the circulation desk to take care of the line of people waiting impatiently for their books to be checked out. “I’ll keep thinking about where there might be more information. Let me know if you need anything else.”
Dean opened the book to a random page, letting the two halves thump down on the table in a small cloud of dust. Jack leaned over the table to look at it upside-down. The handwriting was in cursive, but at least it wasn’t too faded, and looked pretty consistent. Once Dean figured out whether this loop or that was supposed to be an I or E or A, it probably wouldn’t be too hard to read.
“This is boring,” Jack said in a low voice, as if confiding a great secret. “Is research always this boring?”
Dean sighed. It was like working with a frickin’ six-year-old. “Yes, Jack. It’s always this boring. But we have to do it if we’re going to find out where the body’s buried. Or if we’re even looking at the right person.”
The older man was aghast at the idea. “You mean we might have to start this all over from the beginning?”
“Yeah. That’s how it works, man.” At the thought, Dean felt just as depressed as Jack looked.
Jack sat back and fidgeted for a bit. Dean bent to the memoir of Vince Emerson. He was peripherally aware of Jack flipping disconsolately through some of the other books, looking around the library as if in search of something interesting, and then there was an odd movement that forced Dean to look up in order to discover what it was.
Jack was playing with a yo-yo.
“For fuck’s sake, Jack,” Dean said, too appalled to pay any attention to the disgusted gasp from the older lady at the computer just three steps from their table. “Do you always bring a yo-yo on your trips to the library?”
Jack gave him a bland stare. “I take a yo-yo everywhere I go. There’s always a reason to have one along.”
“My God. How old are you? Ten? You’re going to get us thrown out!”
“Um, no, that would be you. Getting a little loud, kid.” Jack flicked his eyes from one side to the other, indicating the small-town folks who were glaring at him with narrowed eyes. One of them was a young mother in line at the desk, holding her hands clamped over her young son’s ears and staring at Dean with eyes that promised a swift and painful death.
“Oh, for... Just go outside and play with your yo-yo.” Frickin’ six years old. Dean was sure of it.
Jack looked back at him with large, soulful brown eyes. Dean rolled his own eyes and crouched back over his book. C’mon, Vince. Gimme something good, here.
But Jack didn’t go outside. After a few moments, Dean was aware of him going back to the other books, pulling one of them closer, and then sitting still for awhile. A few minutes later Dean glanced up and saw Jack reading quietly, actually taking time, eyes moving carefully back and forth, a hand already on the next page ready to flip it.
A soft quiet fell as Dean turned back to the memoir, still scanning down each page for Susanna Milner’s name. Neither of them was good at this research thing, but they could do it. This was going to work.
As long as one of them didn’t drive the other one insane first.
Susanna Milner had been the oldest child in a family with seven kids. They found that tidbit in a book of records from some old church, the names of the children, when they were born and baptized. (Jack was actually the one who found this info—Dean had been suitably impressed.) Unfortunately, the same book did not mention where she was buried, only that she had died and there was a service. So presumably not on church property.
“Maybe on the family homestead, then,” Dean said. “Or near where she died. Sometimes people do that. Seems kinda creepy to me.”
Jack attempted to give him the Teal’c face, one eyebrow up, mouth straight and stern. He probably didn’t look as awesome as the Jaffa warrior, but at least he tried. “This whole business is kinda creepy.”
“Yeah, but that’s extra creepy.”
It was Vince Emerson’s memoir that yielded the most useful information, though, scattered and senile as it was—the beginning of the story at the end of the book, other bits scattered throughout. Took Dean for-freaking-ever to gather it all, and he wasn’t quiet about the headache it gave him, either. Jack just told him to take more Advil. Because, seriously, what was he supposed to do with that information? He’d already given the kid waffles and pie. That was pretty much the limit of Jack’s nursing skills.
It was Susanna Milner’s younger brother who had gotten lost in the wilderness, Vince Emerson told them in his spidery old man’s script sprawled over the pages of his forgotten memoir. Abraham, eight years old when Susanna was seventeen in 1853, the youngest child of the large pioneer family. The people of the small settlement were afraid that he’d been captured by Dakota Indians—already the land disagreement that would later break into bloody war was brewing in the woods of Minnesota. There had been searches by lantern light, men carrying rifles and axes in fear of red-skinned terrors.
Susanna had been frantic for her little brother. After everyone else gave up, she still went out there whenever she had the chance, sometimes taking supplies, sometimes taking nothing, just calling and calling. Emerson’s spare style put it plainly: Susanna out there yelling for her brother at all hours, people come to think it was a ghost, high and wailing. Pretty much she was. Her parents stopped looking but she never did. And elsewhere in the book: Susanna went out in the storm that night, thought she heard little Abe calling for her. Flashflood that night and she couldn’t get back over the bridge. Took five days and all the men in a day’s ride to put the bridge right.
Yet another passage: She died lonely, that Milner girl. Not a kind way to go. Her other sisters and brothers cried for her, so did her mammy and pappy, but she only had tears for Abe. Allus wondered what it was between those two that made her love him so. She had other brothers. Folks are odd, all I can tell.
Dean rubbed both hands over his face when he finished reading that bit, looking away, eyes dark and shadowed. “She must have been so scared,” he said in a voice not meant for anyone but himself. Jack wanted to touch his shoulder, but he was across the table, too far away, so he cleared his throat and looked down at the book in front of him, a long ledger of birth and death notes, dry as dust.
The young man shook his head, hard, and looked up with that lethal glint back in his eyes. “That would do it. That would be enough to make someone hold on. Unfinished business, looking for her brother. Lonely and frightened in the woods, poor little thing, but now she’s killing people and it’s time to end it.”
“You think we have the right one, then.” It wasn’t a question. Jack was starting to get the hang of this whole ghost-hunting thing, too. “Whatever happened to little Abe?”
“Dude, who cares? Now we just have to find out where she’s buried.”
Jack felt himself going mulish on this one, and wasn’t really sure why. But it was there, hard and strong in his chest. ”I care. Here, gimme Emerson’s memoir. You can go back to looking at the church records.”
Dean twisted his eyebrows into a pretzel, clearly bewildered at this, then seemed to shrug and chalk it up to an old guy’s eccentricities. “Fine. You want to find out what happened to Abe, be my guest. I’m telling you that it’s not important, though.” He handed over the gray tome, taking the record book from under Jack’s hands. “Looking through that thing for yet another rambling story is going to give you a major headache. And I’m not sharing the Advil, man. It’s mine.”
The corner of Jack’s mouth twisted up. “Because you bought it with your own hard-earned cash?”
“No, because I stole it from you fair and square.” Dean grinned back. “Just fair warning, I’ve adopted this bottle and I’m not giving it back. No poor little Jessica, here.”
“Okay, Daddy Dean, but I don’t remember giving up my visitation rights.”
“You signed the papers, I swear. Maybe you were a little drunk at the time, but it still counts.”
Jack shook his head, grinning fully now. “Kid, how do our conversations always end up going so weird?”
“It’s not my fault, old guy. You bring the weirdness with you. I’m just trying to keep up.”
“Well, you do a helluva job, I gotta say.”
Dean flapped a hand. “Oh, read your dusty old memoir. Find out what happened to little Abe. I have important books to read.”
“Yeah, you have fun with that.”
They went back to their research.
Susanna had indeed been buried on the family homestead. Dean found that in another memoir, written by some woman a generation or two down on the Milner family tree, a wannabe Laura Ingalls Wilder born a little too late for the interesting stuff. After he found that bit, he gave the book to Jack so he could keep looking for what happened to little Abe. It might be in there, though that author seemed a lot more interested in the Dakota Conflict, which happened a decade after Abe disappeared and Susanna died.
Then he had to go through an old book of claim records to find out where the Milner homestead was, and more records to find out if it was still standing, not paved over or retaken by the woods. That took a nice long time, too, but he finally had an address and a little map. No one was living there now, but it looked like it would be easy enough to find a road that would take them there.
Jack had moved over to the computer, checking his email, by the time Dean finished and looked up, rubbing his sore eyes with a knuckle. He fought a yawn for a little bit, then gave in, feeling his jaw crack with it. He was tired, but satisfied, having found everything he needed to know in an afternoon of solid work. At times like this, he could almost understand what Sam enjoyed about research, the pleasure of fitting a puzzle together, using only persistence and sheer brainpower to find all the pieces and make sense of them. It just took way too freaking long and was much too boring most of the time, that was all.
Dean pushed himself out of his chair, and sauntered the three steps over to the computer. “Anything good? Sometimes those offers of free girly pictures are legit.”
Jack did a little pursed-lip lowered-eyebrows thing that packed just as much disapproval into one expression as Dean’s dad could get out in an hour-long lecture. He just shook his head, though, and leaned back to show Dean what he was looking at. A text document full of obituaries—not near as fun as Dean had been hoping. “Daniel sent me the raw info from that list of deaths he gave me. Check it out...all the kids that you think Susanna got? Older siblings, every single one of ‘em. Big brothers, big sisters, out in the woods doing whatever, and bang, death from above. Death from somewhere, anyway.”
Dean nodded, barely looking at the text Jack scrolled through, pointing out the lines where the obits listed survivors—parents, grandparents, younger siblings. “Yeah, that’s interesting. But hey, while you were doing that? I found out where she’s buried. So we can go end this thing. You ready, or are you still curious about what happened to little Abe?”
“I found out what happened to him. I’ll tell you in the car.” Jack closed out the documents and logged off, then stood up from the computer and stretched broadly, forcing Dean to step back and bump into a bookcase. Fortunately, he didn’t hit his head, but he gave the older man a glare anyway. Jack grinned, slow and mischievous. “You know, curiosity’s not such a bad thing, some of the time. It kept me from dying of boredom in here.”
“I’m glad that worked for you, dude. Now, can we get out of here? Much as I just love hanging out in tiny libraries all day, duty calls. And I want a burger.”
“Sure, sure. Let’s blow this popsicle stand.”
On the way out, Dean made sure to thank Marcy the Reference Librarian for her help. Never knew when he might have to pass this way again. And there was the slightest chance that she might be open to further...relations...later. She beamed up at him and invited him, somewhat breathlessly, to come back anytime.
Dean was grinning as he hopped down the steps, into the slanting sunlight of the gravel parking lot. He was finally back on track for the hunt: location pinned down, directions firm, salt and shovels and kerosene in the trunk, a balmy spring evening ahead, a solid, competent guy backing him up, and a nice-looking librarian smiling after him. Things couldn’t really be going much better.
He was even feeling magnanimous enough to switch from Metallica to a more oldies-rock mix tape, before he pulled out on the main drag in search of a burger joint. “So, what happened to Abraham Milner?”
Jack leaned back into the bench seat, finger tapping on his thigh in time to the music. “It was like Emerson said people thought. He was kidnapped by some Dakotas, dragged out into the wilderness. Probably miles away before anyone even noticed he was missing—no chance was Susanna ever gonna find him. He grew up among them, adopted their ways. In 1862 he was killed in the Dakota Conflict, fighting on the Dakotas’ side. Buried on the battlefield.”
“Man, that’s rough.” Dean shook his head, staring out the windshield. “So Susanna’s baby brother never came home.”
“Yeah. It pretty much sucks all around.”
Dean kept his eyes peeled for a likely looking restaurant and deliberately did not think about what that would have been like, losing your little brother, never seeing him again, dying alone looking for him, and then not even being buried near each other. Yeah, that would suck out loud.
The little McDonald’s was built into an older building, peeling green paint and that weird false front some old buildings still sported, making it look like it had two stories instead of one, but the logo in the window was the same familiar golden arches. Dean pulled into the slanting parking spot and threw the car in park. “Well, it’s time that she finally got some peace. Right after I get me some fries.”
There was still about an hour of sunlight left in the day when Dean turned the Impala off the paved road into what might generously be called a track, rough, rutted and overgrown with grass and weeds. No one had been down this way for a long time. Jack found himself gripping the dashboard as they bounced and jounced their way down the drive, Dean cursing a bit, apologizing to his “baby” for the wear on her shock absorbers.
The trees on either side were tall and broad, branches grown over the road to form a tunnel of dark green, blocking out the light. It was like being swallowed, passing down an esophagus of vegetation, old and strong and wild. It made Jack think of being a pioneer, back when all the trees were tall and the forest covered entire states, like one enormous organism spread over hundreds of miles. People disappeared in here and never came out.
Not Jack and Dean, though. They were fine. They knew what they were doing.
Eventually the road ahead lightened with daylight, and they drove out of the green tunnel into a largish cleared area. A ramshackle farmhouse stood near the track, listing drunkenly to the side. Other buildings were missing walls or roofs, and one was down to just a concrete foundation, a few rotted boards fallen over it like a game of pick-up-sticks played by a giant.
Dean picked a flat spot near the house and parked, looking around with a distinctly unimpressed expression. “Well, we’re here. You ready to do this thing?”
“It’s gonna be gross, isn’t it?”
“Digging up a chick buried a hundred fifty years ago and setting her bones on fire? Yeah, it’s gonna be gross. If all goes well, it will also be kinda boring. I do like the fire part, though.”
“Yeah, should have pegged you for a pyro, you little weirdo, you.” Jack sighed and opened his door. “Let’s get to it.”
They got the shovels and other supplies from the trunk, including a couple of shotguns loaded with salt, and Jack also saw Dean sticking other things in various pockets, a knife down his boot and another on his belt, a pistol against the small of his back. It never hurt to be prepared in this business, apparently. Jack felt a little naked with only his service weapon, a shotgun, extra shells, and a shovel.
But if things went bad on this one, it wouldn’t be Jack in danger. He was an only child, and kind of outside the victims’ age range. He was here to watch the kid’s back, and really, it wasn’t a bad position to be in. Pretty familiar all around—someone else doing the important stuff while he made sure they were all safe and made it home in one piece. Just one more mission.
Dean led the way toward the western edge of the property, glancing at the little hand-drawn map in his hand. Falling sun glinted off the dirt-crusted blade of the shovel over his shoulder, the shotgun slung over his back. The wooden shovel handle against Jack’s palm was worn, a bit concave from much use, smoothed by the press of hands over hours and hours of work. They had dug up a lot of graves with this shovel, Dean and his dad, and maybe his brother.
Jack wondered how many people the Winchesters had saved over the years, people who never knew they were even in danger before the threat was vanquished. Like how the world remained in ignorance of what horrors existed just outside the light of their tiny yellow sun, of how many battles had been fought and lives had been sacrificed to keep this planet safe. They weren’t so different, this little family of ghost-hunters and Jack’s team of eight long, hard years.
They found the grave plot tucked up against the edge of the trees. The Milner family had probably found the branches snaking out above the graves to be protective, maybe even comforting, but to Jack they only looked oppressive, the shadows they cast too long, too dark, taking away more of the light than he was willing to give. Susanna’s grave was the oldest, in the back corner. The simple headstone showed its age, worn, lichen growing in the grooves where the unsteady inscription had been carved.
“Once it gets dark we should take turns digging and keeping an eye out,” Dean said, already matter-of-factly jamming his shovel into the hard-packed soil. “Even though her usual haunt is miles from here, sometimes spirits can tell when their grave is being disturbed. For now we should be able to dig together, though.”
It was hard, back-breaking work, and yeah, a little boring. Jack fell into the rhythm of it easily, enjoying the sweat of good, honest labor. Well, maybe not exactly honest. But certainly good.
The moon was close to full, and already up by the time the sun sank beyond the trees, the night clear and deep. Dean had brought flashlights in the army duffle set near the grave, but they hardly needed them. As the last shreds of light lingered in the sky, Dean waved a hand at Jack, told him to stand watch with the shotgun while he kept digging. Jack was a little amused at how easily the kid had taken to giving orders to a man twice his age, but didn’t protest. His knees had been starting to twinge a little.
It was second nature to walk a small perimeter, facing the darkness, shotgun held loose and ready in both hands. Jack felt his back straighten, military-proud, his mind slip back to a thousand other campsites on a thousand other worlds. He could smell the forest, strange in its familiarity—he was so used to the scents and sights of alien woods, alien trees, each different, each the same.
They traded off watching and digging twice, so it was Dean’s shovel that hit the pine box with a muffled thunk of half-rotten wood. Jack sidled a little closer to the grave, still keeping a watch on the surrounding trees, glancing occasionally down to see Dean scraping off the remaining dirt, tearing up the boards, revealing the corpse beneath. Yeah, it was pretty gross. No embalming back then out here in the wilderness, so nature had done its work. At least it was too old for there to be any smell.
Dean accepted Jack’s hand up to climb out of Susanna’s open grave. He fetched a canister of salt from the duffel and poured it liberally over the bones and broken wood, then dumped kerosene after it. Jack watched him with one eye, still keeping a wary look out for impending ghosty danger.
Just as Dean lit a match, a flare of light in the dark like a firefly come too early for warm weather, Jack saw something at the corner of his eye. He whirled, shotgun up and ready, just in time to see the dark mass coalesce, rushing at him over the moonlit grass like a speeding bus. Jack fired the shotgun, watched the salt disperse into the shape, which vanished. “Dean! We got company!”
Dean dropped the match into the grave and pivoted to put his back to Jack’s, grabbing the shotgun slung over his shoulder. Fire shuddered to life beside them, flaring out of the six-foot pit. “We just have to hold her off for a little bit! Once the bones burn she’ll be gone.”
Jack felt and heard the blast as Dean shot, the young man’s shoulder nudging back against his with the recoil, and then he saw the spirit coming from his side and it was his turn to shoot again. Again the ghost of Susanna Milner dispersed as the salt hit her, but she reformed almost immediately. Crap. Then back around to Dean’s side, another blast. Jack reached for the extra shells in his pockets.
Fire, reload, fire. Damn, shotguns were a pain. Jack wished fervently for a P-90 or an AK-47 that could work with salt bullets—didn’t exist on this world, but maybe the Asgard could whip something up for him. The fire in the grave raged and then died, darkness seeping back in, and still the spirit formed and rushed, again and again, each time more quickly than the last.
“Oh, shit,” Dean said. “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, Jack, the bones are gone and she’s still here!”
“What can do that?” Jack asked, fingers expertly reloading the shotgun. “You didn’t mention this.”
“Sorry, I didn’t think... It’s rare, it’s...” Dean shot yet again. “She must have...must have something else left somewhere that’s important to her, left behind a, a beloved object from life, some part of her body somewhere else, but I checked the bones, they were all there....”
The young man’s voice was rising just a little, pushing toward hysteria. Jack stepped back a little to press his back to Dean’s, giving him contact. “A lock of hair? Would that do it?”
“Yeah, maybe, I dunno, I haven’t really seen this much.”
“She gave a lock of her hair to Abe, Dean. It was in the second memoir.”
This time, Jack could fully agree with that heartfelt sentiment.
“Yep. We’re in shit, all right.”
That was it, the last shell. Dean dropped his gun, now useless, and pulled the iron knife from his belt with a soft snick of metal against leather. They hadn’t done anything to the ghost of Susanna Milner except piss her off, and now she was coming straight for him.
She descended on him like an ice storm, all fury and stinging wind and cold that reached into his bones. There was a rush of sound as he fell past Jack, a whirl of moonlit green, and he slashed desperately with the knife. Susanna evaded the knife, grabbing his arm, and frost sped out along the limb and through his fingers, numbing them until he dropped the only weapon left to him.
Dean landed on his back in dew-wet grass between two graves, gasping and choking, white spots in his vision as he hit the back of his head yet again. “Jack! The knife!” He forced his head to the side, looking for the other man, and saw Jack pressed against a headstone, grimacing, struggling to move and unable to do so.
Well, they were thoroughly screwed now, weren’t they?
Terror, deep and cold, flooding him like a swift, angry tide. The insistent whisper started up again, invading his thoughts, creeping under his skin. Come, little one, come and rest, come to me, come home come home come home... He hadn’t heard the words so clearly that first time, only felt what they might mean, but now they were as clear and sharp as shards of ice, piercing his chest like so many tiny knives.
Come back, come back, please come back, you’ll be safe here, little one, come home come home come home.
Abe. She was calling for little Abe. And the terror.... It was hers. It was the fear of Susanna Milner, a hundred and fifty years gone, not for herself but for her missing brother. The loneliness, too, was hers. It was like being impaled.
But oh, God, oh God, now it was Dean’s fear, too, his loneliness, and suddenly all he could think about was Sam, Sam so far away in California, all alone with no one to watch his back, no one to protect him from the things that went bump in the night, no one to make sure the guns were loaded and the salt lines were unbroken. Who was there to take care of Abe? Who was there to take care of Sam? They were alone, they were alone and lost, and how were they going to find their way home without their big brother, their big sister to lead them there?
Dean resisted, shoving back against the cold, digging his heels and fingers into the dirt, arching up against the smoky form that covered him, buried him, desperate and frightened and just looking for someone to share her burden. “No, no, Sam is all right, he’s all right! Nothing... We checked, we looked, we set wards.... Nothing’s gonna touch him, he’s okay!”
Jack’s voice, so far away, miles away down a tunnel and echoing in the cold, but Jack’s voice, warm and deep, an anchor in the maelstrom of fear and loneliness. Dean grabbed on, dug his fingers in. “Jack! She...she’s scared! She’s scared for her brother!”
Abe, Abe, little Abe, my little Abraham, where are you, where have you gone? Come home, come home, I miss you, little brother, I am so frightened, Abe, come home.
Sam, Sam in that stupid college full of idiots who didn’t know a hex bag from a crucifix, Sam vulnerable and gone, gone gone. Too far away for Dean to touch, too far away for him to check on him at night when he woke from a dream and just needed to watch his brother breathe for a moment, too far away even for a phone call, even that was gone. Sam, Sam, alone and lost.
God, Sam, please come home. Please come home, little brother.
The terror twisted inside him, a fatal gut wound, mixed now with guilt. Susanna’s guilt, so old and ingrained. She would never be free of it.
I shouldn’t have let him go, I knew that the woods were dangerous. He said ‘just a few berries,’ and I said ‘all right, just a few,’ but he went he went and now he’s gone and I shouldn’t have said yes. I should have gone with him. They took him, they took him, they took my baby brother and it’s on my head.
Dean tried to brace himself against it, but it was too late. The guilt crashed into him, pressing him into the ground, and yes, this was his too.
Shouldn’t have let you go, Sam. Shouldn’t have let you go. Thought I was doing you a favor but I wasn’t. Sorry, so sorry. Something bad is gonna happen to you while you’re alone and it’ll be my fault for letting you go.
It was a plain certainty, knowledge, knowing, absolute and pure, that something bad was going to happen. But this wasn’t his. Dean had never felt sure that something was going to happen to Sam. This was Susanna, twisting inside him, burrowing under his skin, living in his heart and mind.
She was going to kill him. She wasn’t doing it on purpose, but this was going to kill him.
Dean gasped, dragging in frosty air. Tried to push back. Tried to get her out of him. But there was no strength. The cold and terror and guilt had leached it all away.
Jack’s voice again, swift and warm, a flurry of words that Dean couldn’t make out beyond the rushing inside him. Dean blinked sluggishly, tried to focus on the words. The cadence of Jack’s voice rose and fell, gentle, soothing, a bedtime story for frightened big sisters, big brothers.
Susanna’s attention wavered from Dean, flowing toward Jack. Hearing the words Dean couldn’t yet understand. The terror lessened, only slightly, but enough for Dean to breathe again. He choked on a lungful of air, wheezing in and out.
Jack’s voice, firm and determined. “The Dakotas treated Abe like one of their own. The stories about Indian captives being tortured, raped, mutilated—all false, Susanna, I swear to you. Just scary stories for pioneer kids. Abe grew up happy, on the plains, though he never forgot you. He kept that lock of hair you gave him, he must have, because how else would you be here? He learned to hunt, and he learned to ride a horse, and he learned to wear war paint and dance around the fire. Nothing bad happened to little Abe, Susanna. He grew up happy. He loved his new people. He loved them almost as much as he loved you. Nothing bad happened to him.”
Jack sounded so certain, so sincere. Dean believed him. He knew that Jack had read that book. Jack cared about what happened to little boys kidnapped from their families. Jack knew the stories.
Susanna felt the belief in Dean. Slowly, oh so slowly and painfully, the terror faded. And the loneliness. And the guilt. She believed in Jack.
The darkness lifted from Dean’s chest, and he pulled in air and rolled over on his side, curling up in a ball and shivering madly. Jack pattered on, a long running story about a little boy growing up wild and free with the Dakota Indians. Dean watched Susanna drift toward him, shapeless cloud of darkness and ice softly gathering into the form of a young girl, slim and white, staring raptly.
Jack kept talking, leaning against the headstone, no longer held there. He looked Susanna in the eyes and told her all about her baby brother. Susanna knelt beside him and leaned in close, a child at the door, listening to the grown-ups’ conversation.
Eventually, sadly, Jack reached the end of the story. He told Susanna about how her brother died, still wild and free, fighting for his people’s rights. He told her where the boy was buried. He told her that little Abe was waiting for her on the other side.
Susanna blinked sadly, and nodded. Then she leaned in and kissed Jack’s cheek, shyly, a young girl saying good-night to a father.
And she vanished. Just gone. Just like that. A breeze blew through where she had been, spring-warm, and Dean kept shivering. Susanna’s loneliness and fear had been lifted from him, but his own was still there, a black beast wakened from sleep, tearing through him unhindered.
Jack’s hands lifted him, Jack’s arms tucked him in close, warm and solid and real. “Dean, it’s okay. It’s all right. You’re safe. She’s gone.”
“Sam,” Dean whispered, broken and lost. “I shouldn’t have let him go.”
He shivered for a long time. Jack knelt there for even longer, murmuring reassurances, another bedtime story to soothe a frightened big brother. He didn’t say a word about his knees. Not even once.
This time, Daniel called him. Jack had expected that his very, very smarty-pants friend would eventually figure out that he hadn’t been completely honest in their last conversation, but he’d been hoping that it would take longer than one freaking day. Sheez.
“Yeah, Daniel, I’m fine. No, you don’t need to send the marines. No, it wasn’t nothing, but it’s taken care of now. No, it wasn’t really just a cable movie that had me calling you with extremely weird questions. Yes, it’s true, there’s more to the story, and I will happily tell you all about it. Later.” Jack answered each of Daniel’s rapid-fire questions in order, holding the cordless phone between his ear and shoulder as he worked at the kitchen counter, chopping onions and potatoes and dumping them in a foil packet with butter and spices to cook on the grill.
Silence at the other end as Daniel digested this. “You’re sure you’re okay?” he said at last.
“Friggin’ peachy. Listen to my voice. Don’t I sound chipper?”
“Uh...” Daniel’s answer was slow, still processing. “You do, actually. But since when do you use words like ‘frigging’?”
“Eh, this young guy I’ve been working with. Must be rubbing off on me. Seriously, Daniel, I’m awesome. I’ll tell you all about it as soon as I can, but it’s not really a story for the phone.”
“You’ve been up to something.” Daniel’s voice was completely certain, but he didn’t sound unhappy or anything. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to just sit around fishing and reading the newspaper for very long. You know, they still want you to head up Homeworld Security. And Landry says that your retirement paperwork never actually went through. It’s probably still sitting on his desk.”
Jack sighed. “Yeah, I kinda figured. Look, I gotta go. Talk to you later, okay? I promise.”
“I’ll hold you to it.”
Jack hit the end button on the phone and set it on the counter, then stared down at the messy cutting board. They still wanted him on Homeworld Security. It was an important job, and he was probably the most qualified person on the planet. When they first told him about it a couple of months ago, he had rejected the idea immediately, and he still wasn’t sure that he really wanted it. But he also didn’t really want to be retired. Retirement was kind of boring. And the world was full of people who needed to be protected.
Jack wandered deeper into the cabin, and didn’t even hesitate in the door before stepping into the guest room and moving right over to the bed. Dean was still sprawled all over it, apparently asleep, but at Jack’s invasion of his space his eyelids twitched and he turned over with a sigh. “Five more minutes. No, make that five more hours.”
Jack smiled. “I’m just here to exercise my visitation rights.”
Without opening his eyes, Dean reached over and grabbed the bottle of Advil from the nightstand, then cuddled it to his chest like a tiny, cylindrical teddy bear. “Mine now. Comfy here. The Advil likes me.”
“Clearly, you were not hugged enough as a child.” Jack shook his head sadly. “And you’re sleeping with that knife under your pillow, aren’t you?”
“’S a good friend,” Dean slurred. “Now go ‘way and lemme snuggle with my buddies.”
Jack grabbed the kid’s blanket-covered leg and gave it a little shake. “C’mon, kiddo. I know we had a bad night, but you’ve been sleeping for almost twelve hours now. Time to rejoin the living.”
Dean pushed his head into the pillow and let out a deliberate snore.
“Well, your loss. I have steaks on the grill. Thick, juicy, porterhouse steaks. I have this seasoning rub, secret recipe passed down through generations of O’Neills, and a sauce that’s just...mm. Indescribable. They’re just getting to that point where the juice is starting to drip out, falling down into the coals, creating this aromatic smoke. But well, if you’re tired, I guess I’ll just have to eat both of them all by myself....”
Dean finally couldn’t stand it anymore. He sat up abruptly, eyes wide, hair all over the place, drool dripping from one corner of his mouth. “Okay, okay! I’m up. Don’t eat my steak.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Jack couldn’t resist ruffling the kid’s dark blond hair, making it stick up even more. “Come out when you’re ready.”
He made his way back to the door, peripherally aware of Dean smoothing down his hair with a forbidding scowl, just a touch of something else in his eyes. Bewilderment, maybe. The young man was still shaky, he knew, still struggling to re-bury all of the hard, painful stuff that had been dug up last night. There were cracks in his armor, places Jack could get in.
He had said things, last night, sitting on the cold ground in the circle of Jack’s arms, things that Jack was sure he had never, ever said aloud to anyone else. Dean hated being vulnerable, obviously, but he had passed the point of no return with Jack. They weren’t strangers anymore, teaming up for one random job. This was more like what had taken SG-1 months and years to develop.
It was just fine with Jack. He was perfectly willing to make room for one more person who could come in without knocking, one more person who was allowed to share his favorite beer, one more person he would cook waffles and steak for. Dean, though, seemed to be having a little more trouble with the concept. That was all right. They had time.
They ate outside, sitting on mismatched lawn chairs at a white wicker table, the spring afternoon warm and bright around them. Afterward, Jack took the dishes in, and Dean took the cell phone out of his pocket and stared at it for awhile.
Dad would want to know. He hit the buttons, waited for voice mail, listened to the mechanical female voice reciting the number. Of course. “Hey, it’s Dean. I took care of that thing I called you about earlier. Just a ghost. A little stubborn, though. I’m staying up here in Minnesota with a friend. Not Pastor Jim, different guy. Give me a call, okay? I... I need to, to... Never mind. I’m okay. Just let me know where you are so I can meet up with you.”
He flipped the phone shut and dropped it on the table as if it was suddenly too hot to hold. Damn it, Dad, why won’t you answer your fucking phone once in a while? Do I ever let your calls go to voice mail? I just wanted to hear your voice, for God’s sake. Is that so much to ask?
He didn’t think about the reasons that his dad might not be answering the phone. Didn’t think about him lying in a ditch somewhere, blood black and dripping, didn’t think about hospitals and morgues and John Does with too many identities in their wallets to sort out the right one. Dad was in a bar somewhere drinking off the last hunt, that was all. Dean wished he was there with him.
As if summoned by the thought, a beautiful bottle of beer appeared at his elbow, and Dean turned his head, hidden in his hands, to give it an appreciative look. Jack’s hand pressed his shoulder, warm and solid, and then the man moved around to the other chair and sat down again with a satisfied sigh. Dean leaned back, taking the beer with him, and felt some of the tension run out of his body.
“Did you call your brother?” Jack nodded at the phone still on the table.
Oddly, Dean didn’t feel a twist in his gut at the question, didn’t feel himself tense up again, hostile to the probing curiosity of a near-stranger. He just shook his head. “Nah. Sammy’s fine. He has his own life now—he wouldn’t want me calling him, butting in.”
“Uh huh.” Jack’s voice was neutral. He looked away, over the lake.
Dean shifted a little in his seat, but knew he had to say it. “Look, about what I said last night...”
“Don’t worry about it.” Jack cut a look over to him, brown eyes warm and knowing, so knowing. “Don’t worry about any of it. We all have tough missions sometimes, end up needing to decompress. I’ve been in your shoes, and I’ve seen plenty of other people in them, too. The stories I could tell you...if you had the clearance, of course.” He twisted a little grin. Opening the conversation in a different direction, giving Dean an out.
Dean hesitated, but didn’t take it. “Still, though... Thanks. I owe you one. You were right to want to find out what happened to little Abe.” He breathed a shuddery sigh and ran a hand through his hair, ignoring how it shook slightly. “Oh, man, you were so right. If you hadn’t been there...”
“But I was. And thank you for acknowledging my awesome research skills.” Jack extended his bottle across the table, and Dean obliged, clinking their beers together in a salute.
They stared out over the lake, basking in the sun. Eventually they finished the beers and Jack went in for more, again pausing to squeeze Dean’s shoulder before moving back to his chair. Jack was a very tactile guy, Dean was coming to realize, and not just with yo-yos. He bet that with his friends, Jack was always touching, ruffling, poking, bothering, picking up random things and messing with them. Since last night, Dean seemed to be on the list, too.
It wasn’t a bad thing. Dean seemed to remember his dad being like this too, once, a long, long time ago. He hadn’t known that he missed that until just now.
Dean looked over, unused to hearing that slight hesitance in Jack’s voice. The older man was always so certain, so firm.
“Why don’t you stick around for a few days? At least until your head is better. I have an extra fishing pole with your name on it, and plenty of steaks in the freezer.”
Dean looked to the lake, biting his lip. This wasn’t how it usually went. More often than not, the Winchesters hit the road as soon as the job was done, put some pavement between themselves and any awkward questions that might come up. People didn’t want them around, even the ones they saved—they didn’t want the reminder of whatever supernatural horror they’d encountered. Dean was used to that distrust, that wariness.
Jack was different. It was weird. And sort of wonderful.
Dean relaxed back into his chair and took another swig of beer, letting out a long, slow sigh as it hit his belly. Jack had internet—he’d seen the computer tucked into a corner of the living area and the dish on the roof—and Dean could find another job here as well as anywhere. And fishing... man, he hadn’t done any fishing in forever.
He looked over, lifted his bottle to point at his companion. “Okay, old guy. Just a few days. Until my head is better.”
Jack grinned, slow and glad, and raised his bottle in a mirrored salute. “A few days it is. Welcome to my little corner of Minnesota, Dean Winchester. I’m sure you’ll like it here.”
Dean laughed and drank his beer. “I’m sure I will, Jack O’Neill. Yah sure, you betcha, donchya know. Oh, yah.”
Jack laughed with him.
A/N: And thus ends the first tale of JACKNDEANINTHEWOODSOMGYAY! It will not be the last. I have at least a dozen ideas for further stories, some long, some short, many with Sam and the rest of SG-1, but all centered on further interaction between these two lovable rogues. Thanks for reading. I cherish each and every comment and review, and don’t be shy to let me know what works and what doesn’t. Did I make a typo? Was the characterization off? Did the split perspective throw you at times? Was it badly paced, was the ending rushed? I welcome any and all opinions, even if you just want to write one line to let me know you liked it. That’s cool, too. Even if you have nothing to say, I’m glad you came along on the journey. So again, thanks for reading! I love you all.
And in conclusion, JACKNDEAN!
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