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Fic: Devil's Arcade (4/14)

oooooooooooooo

I will try not to worry you, I have seen things that you will never see
Leave it to memory me, I shudder to breathe
--R.E.M., "Try Not to Breathe"

oooooooooooooo

Two days earlier

He saw a razor-sharp blade and bright red blood spilling out onto a cold white surface, flesh bled dry but healing before his eyes to be torn over and over again. There were hands stretched out in front of him, coated in dried blood so that it was hard to tell where the knife ended and the fingers began, the nails encrusted in the same shade of dark red as the rusting blade.

But he couldn't tell if the hands holding the knife were his or Alastair's.

Dean sat up sharply and looked around the room, his heart pounding. He saw orange-and-brown carpet that clashed with the pink floral bedspreads, shabby brown curtains that let in as much of the morning light as they kept out, and Sam's laptop open on top of an oak desk with decades' worth of dings and scratches. He saw his duffel bag shoved against the wall, clothes spilling out from last night's search for a clean pair of boxers, and he saw Sam's bag zipped and sitting at the foot of his bed. Off to his left, behind the closed bathroom door, the shower was running.

He let out a long breath.

His stomach rumbled, and he absently gave it a rub. The tiny wicker garbage can next to the desk was overflowing with the packaging from last night's dinner, which he'd barely tasted even as he'd eaten it. It was rare that his brother enjoyed food with more gusto than he did, but after spending much of yesterday trying not to think about what he was not going to tell Sam about Hell, he hadn't had much of an appetite. Even the pie had been hard to choke down, which was a rarity indeed.

The shower shut off with a clatter from the pipes, and Dean threw off the covers. Sam hadn't been able to shut up last night about the restaurant in town and how much Dean was going to love it. He'd also mentioned something about cooperative locals, which actually had caught Dean's interest more than the promise of blueberry—no, huckleberry pancakes.

Which was a sure sign that something was wrong with him.

"Hey, you're up." Sam's voice drifted over from the bathroom doorway. "How'd you sleep?"

He pasted on a deliberately fake grin. "Like a baby."

Sam rolled his eyes. "Maybe a colicky baby," he muttered as he ducked back into the bathroom.

Dean made a face after him, the juvenile response momentarily distracting him from nightmares and memories. "Hey, forgot to tell you last night, I got our IDs picked out."

"Yeah?" Sam finished drying off his hair and shucked the towel back into the bathroom. "Nothing government, right?"

"Geez, Sam, you think I don't pay attention when you tell me things?" Dean dug into the back pocket of his jeans, hanging over the room's only chair, and held out the card he'd selected from their wide array of fake identities last night while waiting for Sam to return with dinner. As it turned out, it fit right in with the beans Sam had already spilled at the local diner.

Sam accepted the flimsy piece of plastic and squinted at it. "Paranormal Research Institute of California?" he read, his voice rising with incredulousness.

"Yeah, well, Rose already thinks it's a ghost, right?" Dean replied defensively. "Unless you said something to the contrary to the waitress."

Sam let out a soft snort as he pulled on his jeans. "No, that's a perfectly reasonable cover. It's the acronym, dude."

"Oh, that." Dean smirked. "What, you don't think we're a couple of pricks?"

"Speak for yourself," Sam muttered, tucking the fake ID away into his front pocket.

Dean opened his mouth to say something about Sam's conclusion that he'd been infected by an angry ghost because he was a dick, not a prick, but he thought better of it and shut his mouth. Given the way things were between them lately, he didn't need to pick a fight with his brother—something would come up sooner or later to set them on edge anyway.

Breakfast was, in fact, as good as Dean hoped, between pancakes plump with berries and the sweet, sticky syrup he coated them with. Their waitress's resemblance to Mary Winchester had thrown him for a moment, especially combined with her daughter's similarity to the 1970s version. But Sam had carried the conversation, gaining them a little more information about the thefts from the antique store.

It was old mining equipment that had gone missing, stuff over a hundred years old that had long since been replaced by more advanced machinery. Not that there was much mining up here anyway, Marie told them: silver and gold had run their course pretty quickly in this part of the Rockies, and Elk River had been a timber town from its founding in the early 1900s. Still, some people liked to do a little hobby mining from time to time, or to try and lure tourists in with the promise of quick riches.

"That's what Rose thought it was at first," Marie confided. "Some tourist who'd been suckered and wanted to steal something as payback. But then she says she saw him, clear as day."

"Saw who?" Sam had asked, mopping up the last of the syrup with his final piece of pancake.

Her brown eyes twinkled as she put the check down on the table. "You should ask her yourself," she said. "I'm sure she'll be expecting you."

Ten minutes later, they were knocking on the door of Elk River Antiques, collared shirts buttoned up but ties and jackets back at the motel. When the door swung open a crack, revealing an elderly woman who definitely looked more like Sam's type than his, Dean let his brother step forward. "Mrs. Henderson? We're here about the trouble you've been having with your shop." Sam held out his ID card, and Dean held his breath.

She reached out a steady hand, took the card, and squinted at it. "Paranormal, eh?"

"That's right," Sam replied in a friendly tone. "We came across your story and wanted to know if we could help."

She eyed them both over the top of her wire-framed glasses. Then she swung the door open. "Come in, then."

Sam accepted his ID back and shoved it into his front pants pocket. Dean followed him in, instantly feeling claustrophobic at the sheer amount of stuff crammed into the store. He stood closer to Sam than usual, not wanting to disturb any of the knick-knacks and crap that covered every available surface. He would be surprised if they got out of here without a gawky Sasquatch arm or leg breaking something worth hundreds of dollars.

"Now, Mrs. Henderson, I understand that you can positively identify the man you saw in your shop?" Sam asked. Dean winced at the officious tone of his voice. Remember your ID, dude…

Her piercing blue eyes sharpened on him. "Are you sure you're not with the police, young man?"

Sam blinked and straightened up. "Yes, I'm sure. Why do you ask?"

"Because you sound just like one of them. Oh, not Sheriff Bunce, I've known him since he was a pup," she said, waving a hand. "But if you'll excuse me for saying so, you don't sound like a paranormal researcher. You sound more like a TV cop."

"He, uh, he used to be a cop." Dean upped the wattage of his smile as she turned her attention to him for the first time. "Saw one too many unexplainable things to stay with the force, if you know what I mean. But it's hard to break him of old habits." He jabbed an elbow into Sam's ribs, still smiling.

"I see." She pursed her lips. "How about you?"

"What about me?" Dean asked, momentarily puzzled.

"Too many unexplainable things happen to you too?" she asked, arching a white eyebrow.

"Oh no, ma'am." He shook his head as inspiration struck. "Actually, the institute was founded by my father, and I kind of took it over. Family business, I suppose you could call it." He could feel the look Sam was giving him but ignored it.

"I see." She looked back and forth between them. "You're not reporters?"

Sam hurriedly said, "No, Mrs. Henderson, I promise, we are not reporters trying to get a story. I can assure you of that." The kid was practically radiating earnestness, Dean thought, his puppy-dog eyes wide open and his hair flopping down over his eyebrows.

Whatever Sam's trick was, it must have worked, for the elderly woman gave a sharp nod of hr head as if she had come to a decision and turned her back on them. "Call me Rose. We'll talk upstairs," she said as she flipped around the sign on the front door so it would read "Closed" from outside.

"We don't want to disrupt your business," Sam said quickly.

She cocked her head to the side, reminding Dean of a sparrow. "There isn't much business to disrupt," she said frankly. "Too late in the season for hikers and too early for skiers, and the hunters aren't much for antiquing."

Dean cleared his throat. "I suppose not," he agreed. He couldn't imagine why anybody would be much for antiquing, not if it consisted of looking at row after row of dusty glass bottles and furniture that was better suited for firewood than sitting on, as far as he could tell.

She gave him a shrewd smile as if she could read his thoughts, then strode back past the two of them and towards the back of the shop. Dean looked over at Sam, who gave a quick jerk of his head as if to say, We'd better follow her.

They trailed after the older woman through a cramped back room, up a narrow staircase and into a bright, sunlit kitchen. As they'd guessed from the outside, she apparently lived over the store. She motioned them into high-backed wooden chairs at a small table, all of it the same age and old-fashioned style as the items downstairs. "Now, you look more like coffee than tea drinkers. Am I right?" she asked.

The corner of Sam's mouth lifted up. "Yes ma'am, but we're fine."

Speak for yourself, Dean thought. With nightmares like the one he'd woken up to, even a good six hours of sleep left him feeling exhausted these days.

"Marie's good at refilling those cups, isn't she?" When she saw the quick look the brothers exchanged, she let out a chortle as she started to fill the coffee pot. "This is a small town, you know. We might not be texting to each other all the time like the kids in the cities, but word still travels fast when strangers are doing more than passing through."

Dean paused to adjust his mental picture of an elderly antique store owner who was familiar with text messaging. When he was done, he said, "I understand you've had a little trouble being taken seriously about what you saw." Two could play at this game of sharing insider information.

She turned on the coffee pot and turned to face him. "Figured that one out all by yourself, did you?"

To his right, Sam made a little choking noise, but Dean ignored it. "We run into that a lot in our line of work."

"I'll bet you do," she said, lowering herself into the chair opposite him. "So this research your institute does: is it basic or applied?"

"Definitely applied," Sam said earnestly.

"I see." Rose folded her wrinkled hands in front of her and took a deep breath. When she spoke again, her voice sounded less sure of herself. "You're not going to hurt him, are you?"

Dean exchanged a wild look with Sam. "Who?" they both asked at once.

"Michael. He doesn't mean any harm by it, but it really has to stop. It's difficult enough that he takes his things from my shop, but I can't risk that he'll try to take something back from a customer. That's why I went to the police, you see."

Dean felt his mouth gaping open and hastily closed it. He felt better when he saw the same expression on Sam's face. "So…you know this spirit?" God, it was always weird to be able to talk about a case with a witness this freely.

"Well, of course I do. He was my brother." She reached across and patted his hand with her liver-spotted one before rising from her seat. "Do you boys take cream or sugar?"

It was a good thing there weren't any flies in the kitchen, given how the Winchesters' mouths again dropped open. "Um, cream," Sam managed to stammer out.

He raised an eyebrow at Dean, who widened his eyes and slightly drew his head back in response. That was returned by a pointed glare, but Dean held his ground with a slight sideways tilt of his head. Sam let out a sigh and said, "Mrs. Henderson, did you mention that he was your brother in your police report?"

"Well, not officially, I suppose, but Sheriff Bunce would know who Michael Etchebarry was, wouldn't he?" Rose lined up three white china cups along the scarred yellow Formica countertop and carefully poured coffee in each of them. "I tell you, it was quite a shock to see him in the store, standing there plain as day when he's been gone these twenty years, but it was him."

Sam cleared his throat. "Mrs. Henderson, why would your brother be trying to steal from you?"

"Do you have a brother, young man?" she asked, turning towards him.

Dean watched in amusement as Sam visibly did not look at him. "As a matter of fact, I do," he said.

"Mm-hmm." She carried over two of the china cups and placed them carefully in front of each of the Winchesters. "Did you ever play tricks on each other?"

A sound escaped from Dean's throat before he could help it, followed swiftly by a large foot connecting with his shin under the table. "Sometimes," Sam blandly replied.

"Then you understand," she said with a nod as she set down a tiny ceramic cream pitcher next to her coffee cup before sinking back into her chair. "I thought that's what it was. But he didn't respond to me when I called to him, and that was strange. Michael would always do whatever I asked, always."

"I know what you mean," Sam said softly, eyes dropping to the table, and Dean felt his heart clench for a moment.

He cleared his throat and reluctantly asked, "Do you, uh, know where he's buried?"

She looked away. "I'm afraid I don't." There was a pause, and then she went on, "I lived away from Elk River for many years. He died while I was gone, and since our parents had both passed, the community took care of him." She drew in a long breath and added more quietly, "I eventually came back, but I never could bear to ask where he was buried."

The brothers exchanged glances again. "Can you tell us how he died?" Sam asked softly. "It might help to explain why he's here now."

She bit her lip. "He was struck by lightning."

Dean was surprised at the way Sam's face suddenly and completely blanched. His Adam's apple moved in a huge swallow, and he hastily reached down and took a giant swig of his coffee. Dean shot a quizzical look his way, but Sam was refusing to meet his eyes. Shrugging it off, Dean gave her the standard line. "We're sorry for your loss."

Her faded blue eyes slowly dragged up to his. "Thank you," she said stiffly. "I've never quite gotten over it, as you can see. I can't help but feel that it's my fault."

"I thought you weren't living here at the time," Dean said, puzzled.

"No, but I didn't leave him with the protection he should have had." She nodded towards the sink, and Dean noticed for the first time a row of light brown rocks on the shelf above it.

"Are those fossils?" Sam asked. Dean restrained himself from rolling his eyes. What a geek his brother was.

"Yes, they are. That's a good eye you have, young man." She rose and took the two steps necessary to get to the sink and reached up and picked one of the stones from the shelf. Returning to the table, she placed it carefully in Sam's now-outstretched hand.

Dean watched as his brother turned the rock over, pausing to focus on the outline of what looked like an evergreen sprig etched into one side. "What is this?" he asked, raising his eyes to their hostess. "Is it cedar?"

"Actually, it's a jangoikoaren harriak," Rose replied.

Dean raised an eyebrow as he tilted his head forward. "Come again?"

Her wrinkled face dissolved into a smile. "Stones of God," she replied, waving an arm at the tan-colored rocks lining the windowsill. "My ancestors believed they weren't the remains of plants or animals, but thunderbolts that had fallen from the sky. And that keeping them in the kitchen would provide protection from lightning."

"So does a lightning rod," Dean muttered.

"That's if you're concerned with electrical discharge," she replied, eyeing him closely. "But if you're trying to keep out evil spirits, these are what you need."

Dean shot a look at Sam, whose long fingers had stilled around the cedar fossil. "Sorry, but they don't seem to be doing their job," Dean replied slowly.

"Oh no, they're working just fine. I haven't seen him up here, have I?" she asked. "Besides, he's not evil, he's just confused." She reached out and patted Sam's hand. "Why don't you hold onto this one, dear. He might not act as kindly towards strangers as he has to me." She rose again and took another, smaller fossil from the shelf and handed it to Dean.

"I thought they had to be kept in the kitchen," Dean said, turning the object over in his hand and noticing the fine detail of the leaves captured in the rock.

"Then consider it a souvenir," Rose replied. "Or payment in advance."

"Oh no, there's no payment necessary," Sam hastily said. This time it was Dean who delivered a kick to the shins, forcing Sam to press his lips together rather than deliver a yelp.

Rose's eyes flickered back and forth between the two of them. "Just be careful with Michael, will you? I'm sure he doesn't mean any harm."

"We will, ma'am," Dean responded automatically. They rarely bothered telling family members that their departed loved ones weren't as benign as they thought.

It was much easier to smile and nod and then go torch the sucker's bones.

Rose saw them back out through the shop. Once outside, they climbed into the Impala, pulled the car doors shut in tandem and then sat in silence for a moment. Finally, Dean let out an exasperated sigh. "Damn it, why can't people just stay dead?"

Sam's reply was a pointed look. "Mr. Kettle, there's a Mr. Pot on line one," he said, raising his hand to his ear and extending his thumb and little finger to form a mock telephone.

"Aw, crap." Dean made a face and slammed his hand against the steering wheel, voicing a thought that had been lurking in his head for months now. "Yeah, maybe that's true for me, too."

Sam abruptly straightened in his seat. "What are you talking about, Dean? You'd rather be in Hell?" he asked, his voice rising in pitch and volume with every word.

"No, dumbass," Dean said with a withering look. "If Dad had never made the deal. If the car accident had done me in. Maybe we'd all be a lot better off."

Sam let out a huff of breath and folded his arms over his chest. "Yeah, 'cause Dad and I would have gotten along so well hunting without you. And as soon as I got infected with the Croatoan virus, he'd have put me down." He pointed a finger at Dean before he could reply. "Don't tell me that isn't true, 'cause you know it is."

Dean looked at him for a long moment before turning the key in the ignition and letting out a short sigh. "I still wish he'd told me more," he said quietly. "I wish he'd told me freakin' anything besides what he did." Even now, all these years later and with everything else that had happened, they still didn't know the meaning of John Winchester's final, cryptic words.

Only that they still seemed to be extraordinarily relevant.

"You and me both," Sam sighed, fidgeting with the worn cuff of his shirt.

"I mean, I don't even know what all he knew. Or how he found it out." Dean added as he pulled out onto the street, "Or how sure he was that it was true."

"Or who else might know." They exchanged a silent look, both no doubt thinking of Gordon Walker. Sam went on, "He must have heard it from somewhere. Which means someone else must know."

"We've been over this before, Sam. He coulda pieced it together from things, like he did all the time with the journal. No one told him where to find the yellow-eyed demon. No one told him there was anything wrong with you," Dean insisted.

"We don't know that," Sam answered quietly, still picking at the edge of his button-down shirt. He was silent for a moment before saying with a grim smile, "Guess Dad taught us well, huh?"

Dean frowned as they neared the end of their short drive. "What do you mean by that?"

A quick sideways glance told him Sam was biting his lip. "You don't need to protect me, Dean. If that's why you're not telling me what happened to you."

"Shut up," he growled, turning sharply into the motel parking lot. "You don't know what you're talking about."

Sam straightened up in his seat. "Then tell me."

"No." Dean hit the brakes, and Sam jolted forward a little. "How many times do I have to tell you, Sam? It's not happening. So leave it alone!" And he switched the ignition off and flung himself out of the car, slamming the door behind him.

He was glad when Sam didn't immediately follow, glad that he could disappear into the bathroom and pat cold water on his cheeks and pretend he didn't see his own face smiling and splashed with blood when he looked in the mirror.

'Cause deep down, he was afraid that one day—no, scratch that. He knew, goddamnit, he knew that one day he was going to end up spilling his guts to Sam. He hadn't been able to keep Dad's final command a secret for more than a couple of months, despite knowing it would rip Sam's life apart. And he'd spilled the beans about his deal within a matter of hours, thanks to Mr. I-Know-I-Severed-His-Spinal-Cord. There was no reason to believe this time would be any different.

The thing was, once he told Sam what he'd done down under, there was no way the kid would ever look at him the same again.

And Dean simply couldn't face the thought of that.

(Chapter 5)

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Comments

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zubeneschamali
May. 5th, 2009 05:10 am (UTC)
Sweet! That's my favorite line in this chapter, too. :)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )