Debriefing

(c)2008 gekizetsu

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Part of the Salvation AU. ~ 4150 words, PG for language. Additional coda to Disinterment. Dean still has a job...and a past...and a boss.


DABFA is the acronym for Diplomate, American Board of Forensic Anthropology.

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Sacramento, CA


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His first morning back, Dean went straight to Nguyen’s office before he went to his own. He did it without hesitation. If he waited, it would be almost impossible, because the rest of the staff would start reporting in, and he knew they weren’t going to be able to leave him alone. He knew them. He’d be lucky to get a damn thing done.


When did I stop being the party guy?


What was about to take place wasn’t going to be the most comfortable conversation he’d ever had, at work or outside it, and he had already decided not to worry about it. He’d done what he’d done and he’d lie in that bed as long as he needed to. It hadn’t all gone down the way he wanted it to, but it had turned out the way he’d needed it to.


It wasn’t like he was getting fired. Yet.

 

The door was already open. Nguyen was always early.


He paused in the doorway and knocked lightly on the frame.


Dr. Gabe Nguyen was standing behind his desk, looking out the windows and down onto part of the campus. He turned to glance at Dean, and nodded.


“Welcome back,” he said, and stepped over to him. They shook hands.


“Thanks.”


Nguyen gestured toward one of the two upholstered visitor’s chairs on the other side of his desk.


Dean sat, carefully. He didn’t do anything quickly yet.


His boss was not a guy for pleasantries. Dean appreciated that about him. The how are you’s had been taken care of a week and a half earlier, when Dean had broken down and called him back. He’d half expected to be fired. Sam had been the only one talking to coworkers and reporters and Nguyen up to that point.


Dude, seriously, call your boss. Guy needs to hear it from you, that you’re okay.


He wasn’t that pissed about being put on leave. After talking to Sam about it, it had begun to seem like protocol wasn’t the only thing involved in the decision. Sam didn’t exactly have the luxury of a true observer’s point of view on any of it, but he didn’t jump to the same conclusions that Dean usually did. He could talk to Sam now in ways he hadn’t tried before, even though and maybe because they didn’t spend every single day together.


“I don’t have a case for you right off the bat,” Nguyen said, sitting behind his desk. “I need you to finish the reports you had pending before this happened – the one case that was time sensitive, the floater, went down to LA so we could clear it.”


“Schrader called me to tell me he had it,” Dean said. “He says I owe him three for that one.”


“Be nice to him at Christmas,” Nguyen said. “And then I need the report for your involvement in this whole wonderful mess you’re returning from, for the case file.”


Dean nodded and pursed his lips. He’d known he would have to. He just wasn’t thrilled about it. The fewer questions, the better.


“Not looking forward to it?”


There was something leading in his tone, so Dean made sure his expression and body language were casual. Anthropologists could read people up one side and down the other. “Looking forward to anything that gets me the hell out of the house,” he said.


“You got the same background check that everyone else did,” he said. “No surprises I bet, huh?”


Dean was silent. The brief quirk of his brows was all the answer he needed to give. Internally, the shift in the conversation caused him to brace himself for a few oh, shit moments. He had expected a lot of demands for the details and had been ready to give plenty of evasive answers. A discussion on his past was not in the plan.


“Not going to ask me why I never called you on any of it?” Nguyen said.


Same brow quirk. “Figured you would do what you needed to. It was pretty safe to assume that if you had a problem with how I looked on paper, you’d have said so a long time ago.”


“I have to admit I really wanted to ask about the grave desecration charges,” Nguyen said. “It’s either the last thing you want to see when hiring an FA, or the first.”


Dean smirked.


“But they were dropped, so I didn’t ask. Plus, it’s hard to get a straight answer out of your smart ass on anything that isn’t directly related to a case. You apparently didn’t exist before San Jose, and you barely exist outside of this place if I based that solely on what you talk about while you’re here. Everybody below management level adores you, and anyone above me hates you.”


“I have a minor, recurring problem with authority,” Dean said. His expression was completely neutral.


“No shit,” Nguyen said.


“It’s a little early for my annual review, so I’m trying to figure out why I’m getting all this background stuff,” Dean said. He kept his tone respectful, but he knew the stiffness got through all the same.


“You can hedge with the cops all you want,” Nguyen said. “I’m not going to judge you for it, either, because I know there’s something more to it than just you telling them somebody left a couple of skeletons out for you, then grabbed you and you don’t know why. But I’m still waiting for your report on the whole thing, and if you hedge there, I’ll know it. Then we’ll be in trouble.”


Dean kept his face carefully blank.


“You ever lie to me, and we’re done,” Nguyen said. “You can probably hire on damn near anywhere, with your rep and even in spite of it. But I’ll toss your ass out of here. I don’t want to. So don’t fuck this up, Dean. You get me?”


Dean looked away.


“I didn’t really care what you’d been up to before you got here,” Nguyen said. “I glanced at all of it because I had to, and I figured there had to be a pretty good story or six behind what was on your record. There was probably a lot more that was expunged. So I didn’t read it all that carefully the first time. When you were missing, though, I broke it out again and had a look, and what stuck out the most, because there was so little on it, was the thing in St. Louis.”


Dean couldn’t help it. The fleeting look of oh no that passed over his face had to be as visible to the man across from him as it felt.


“Yeah,” Nguyen said. “You want me to sit here and postulate all day, or you just want to cut this short and tell me what the hell actually went on?”


“The postulating’s better,” Dean said, leaning forward carefully so he could clasp his hands between his knees. Sitting straight for too long seemed to pull on the still-healing scars. “Seriously, I want to know what it looks like to you. You, of all people, after anybody else who’s had a big theory about it and been wrong because they don’t get it and don’t want to. You tell me, because I just know you pulled everything you could get your hands on after you found the original death certificate.”


Nguyen stared at him for a long moment. Dean held his gaze steadily.


“Not a hell of a lot left,” Nguyen said. “Some of it’s been lost.” He made mocking quote marks with the fingers of both hands in midair. “And the PD there just loved having to reissue the death cert as a John Doe. What were you guys doing there?”


“A friend of Sam’s let him know her brother had been accused of murder,” Dean said. “There was something weird about it, so we went to have a look. We got hold of a security tape that made us believe that the guy on film who looked like her brother, wasn’t. And guess what? It wasn’t.”


“So you had someone wandering around looking like other people,” Nguyen said.


Dean spread his hands as a response. The files all stood for themselves. He wasn’t going to interfere in how it looked.


“Sooner or later, he decided to look like you, huh?” Nguyen said. “Not in a makeup artist way, either.”


The guy could go without blinking for weird amounts of time. Dean had found it eerily intimidating for the first year or so, then had decided to ignore it. It wasn’t like he had to keep waiting for a third eyelid to appear, or something. His boss was just good at staring people down.


Nguyen tilted his head a little and kept staring. “Or that’s what I’m getting out of it, because the body they exhumed in ‘06 just after finding out you were still alive still looked exactly like you and had your prints, but here you sit.”


Dean nodded, eyes on the floor.


“Warrant out on you for murder, shot dead in the middle of an assault, autopsied, buried in a bottom of the line pine box when no one came to claim you. Even a twin wouldn’t share your prints.”


Dean nodded again, keeping his eyes down.


“Any idea how he was able to look just like you down to the prints?” Nguyen said. “Because I’d say it isn’t possible.”


“Lot of things are possible,” Dean said.


Nguyen was silent. Dean didn’t dare glance up.


“Possible for someone to strip a body right off the bones so carefully that it leaves the whole thing intact, not a ligament damaged, not a nick mark on the bones anywhere but where the Y incision was made,” Nguyen said, tone still clinical. “And then we find the rest of the body later, tailored like a goddamn suit. Pathology said it’s like the skeleton just peeled the body off and walked away. That’s what the evidence says. Crazy, right?”


Dean took a deep breath and exhaled it silently, trying to stay calm. He could ride this out.


“The body was a mess, but damn, it was still intact enough that somebody could have put it on like a costume and looked like somebody else for awhile,” Nguyen said. “Not just like St. Louis, because I’ve seen the photos of the guy they dug up and it’s not an approximation of you, it’s you, and let me tell you, there’s something I never want to see again: you in a coffin.”


Dean finally did glance up, because there was a touch of emotion at the end, and he wasn’t used to it from his boss. The face across from his looked as angry as he’d ever seen it. He wanted to say that’s okay, I want to be cremated anyway, but he knew better than to get flip right then.


“I’m not aware of anything in human morphology that allows someone to pull the kind of circus trick it would take to completely take on someone else’s entire body. So I’m left with urban legend. Isn’t that hilarious? The forensics evidence, all of it, points right to the fucking impossible.”


His boss didn’t usually swear that much, either. It was reminding Dean of the part of almost every cop movie where the chief of police started yelling about property damage and how the mayor was on his ass.


Dean was also aware that he was being way too quiet, when everybody was used to a lot of verbal distraction from him. He straightened slowly. “What do you need me for, then?” he said.


“Is it the same thing that was in St. Louis?” Nguyen said.


“No.”


“But it’s similar.”


“In a way, yeah.”


“Dean.”


Dean tilted his face up a little, eyebrows raised. “Hey, you know what? Anything I say to you is going to sound like crazy bullshit. The only thing I can say – and I shouldn’t say it, but you know me – is that it won’t be killing anybody else. I can guarantee that, but I’ve got nothing to show you.”


“Did you kill somebody?” Nguyen said, and Dean looked at him, reacting to the tone of voice. There was no worry in it; it was just a question, with a hint of I’m gonna be covering something up, aren’t I, and Dean was amazed.


“No,” Dean said. “It had been dead for a long time.”


Nguyen blinked, actually blinked for once, and Dean waited to see what else he’d get.


“Somebody grabbed the scalpel from stored evidence on the Dwight Kelley case,” Nguyen said. “I saw the whole case file, I saw the autopsy reports, and it was an exact match. If we’d had to take casts of the marks on your bones, too, I have a feeling they’d have matched that same scalpel.”


Dean knew they hadn’t found the scalpel when they combed the spot Sam had rescued him from. Kelley had grabbed it and headed right for Sam’s house.


Dean shook his head. He had listened to Sarah and Dani give him that whole story with a calm none of them had really possessed about the whole thing. The telling had just been something they’d had to suffer together, hands locked across a table, facts strung into a dark montage that screamed close call.


He and Sam hadn’t gone looking for the scalpel. Getting hold of Kelley’s bones had been enough.


“It wasn’t used to remove the flesh from the bones,” Nguyen said.


“Do you know of anything that can take skeletal muscle right off the bone without damaging it, or the bones?” Dean said. “Anything normal and physical, I mean.”


Nguyen was silent.


Dean held his gaze. “How exactly did the brain and all the organs stay in place in that one boneless body that was found? Weird, right? And do you know any way somebody can get past all the security in this place without being seen on the cameras long enough to put a fresh skeleton in my office?”


“So you recognized it,” Nguyen said. “Maybe because of what you saw in St. Louis. That’s why you acted like it was just another case.”


“I’ve seen a lot of things,” Dean said. “Way too many things. So you’re gonna have to fire me, because I can’t tell the whole truth on this one, and if I tell you anything else, you’re gonna have to do it anyway. You’ve got all the proof on file, so you already know this is crazy.”


There was a long moment of silence.


“Nobody’s naturally good at this job,” Nguyen said finally, sitting back in his chair. “Even with a passion and affinity for it, it’s years and years of work, and even the best of us miss things because we’re human. It’s not like being a musician or a painter. Nobody comes hardwired to do this like the training is just a formality. Except you.”


Dean shook his head.


“So cut to the chase,” Nguyen said.


“I didn’t run around expecting things to make sense or trying to slap labels on all of it,” Dean said. “I can’t make it easy for you now by telling you what it was, or what it wasn’t, or what you want to hear. You have the evidence. Look at it and let it tell you what happened. Don’t make me say crazy shit out loud.”


“That’s why you didn’t give the police much of a description,” Nguyen said. “Right?”


“Any description I gave would have expired by the time some sketch artist’s rendition went on the air,” Dean said. He kept his face neutral.


Nguyen leaned forward in his chair and braced his forearms on his desk. “Just tell me what the hell happened,” he said. “Just do it.”


Dean leaned forward again. “I’m glad nobody makes teaching skeletons out of the real thing, anymore,” he said. “And if that Bodyworlds exhibit was touring in the States, right now? I’d burn that fuckin’ thing to the ground.”


Nguyen stared at him for a long moment. He didn’t look angry. He just looked mildly concerned. Dean was used to that, so he felt a little relieved.


“I can be open-minded,” Nguyen said. “When I retire, I get the whole story. Deal?”


Dean snorted. He couldn’t help it.


“I’m interested in all aspects of this particular field of expertise,” Nguyen said dryly. He extended his hand over the desk.


Dean leaned in and shook it. “Deal.”


“Now I have to go back to hollering at you,” Nguyen said.


“I’m getting really used to it,” Dean said.


“What you don’t seem to get is that while you were missing, everybody was a mess. Your family was scared out of their minds, but so was everybody here. Sam called here that morning looking for you, and it was one of the hardest phone calls I’ve ever had, and that has to say something to you. He sounded about twelve.”


“What was I gonna do, Gabe?” Dean said. “Come in here, and say, hey, guess what? Something you’re never gonna believe is wandering around out there carving people, let’s get a team together? Yeah, everybody was gonna get right behind me on that one.”


“You didn’t even try,” Nguyen said. “You took off and tried to do this yourself.”


“This wasn’t something I could bring anybody else into,” Dean said. “Even if I could get them to believe me, because anybody else would have gotten themselves killed. I didn’t do much better, and I knew better. And I still have to deal with the consequences, because we’ve got victim’s families we can never show results to. All these dead guys, and no way to tell their families we caught the sick bastard who did it. I got fallout that ‘s gonna go on in my own family for God knows how long, so no, I didn’t get anything out of this, Gabe. But that’s what it’s about. You do what you have to, to get the job done.”


“You’re full of have-to’s,” Nguyen said. “Knock it off. There’s no way I’m the first to say that to you in all this, either.”


Dean hmphed and looked at the ceiling for a moment.


Nguyen braced his chin in one hand with a sigh. Then he said, “I want you to teach a field recovery course in the spring over at UC Davis. A posting came up and I tossed your name into the hat.”


Dean spiraled through two reactions immediately: hope and despair. The hope was a byproduct of the amazement that someone wanted him to teach anybody anything, and the despair split from his automatic fear of screwing up and an even more basic, knee-jerk reaction.


“Are you benching me, then?” he said, trying to make it sound as casual as possible.


Nguyen slumped into a pose of utter annoyance, hanging his head and looking up at Dean. “I expect you to teach the course in addition to your current field work, Mr. Winchester. I want somebody to get a different look at how it’s done by instinct as well as by scientific approach. I’m asking you to do it for the same reason the ABFA certified you without a doctorate, the first and only one they ever have. You get it?”


Dean got it. He was walking around Dean Winchester, BS, DABFA without the PhD to go with it because he’d had one hell of a record to back him up, and plenty of references. No one had done him any favors, and he hadn’t skirted anything. It wasn’t that he’d been unwilling to keep going and get the doctorate; it was that it felt like overkill and would take him out of the field. When the man in front of him had finally said I think it’ll cause you to think too much and blunt your organic approach to everything, he had agreed and let things lie. There was such a thing as too much education for some people, and Dean didn’t want understanding applied to every single thing he did.


“I want you to find students who are more like you,” Nguyen said. “The field needs that something extra. It takes a lot of intuition as it is, and you have more than anybody. Use that. It’s why I lobbied to snag you out of San Jose State in the first place. Did you think you were fun to take on? Over thirty, smart mouthed, already set in your ways?”


Dean remembered.


He’d been interning at the Sacramento County coroner’s office, which is where he’d first met Lauren. Long before Dani, long before anything resembling his current life had come into being. There’d been a shallow burial in the desert just north of Honey Lake, with a shoe full of foot bones alerting a couple of hikers headed for Hot Springs Peak. The majority of the rest of the skeleton was still intact, clothing, jewelry, no ID, laid out carefully rather than tossed into a hole. Once the skeleton was removed, Dean had insisted that there was another below it, buried deeper, and had been vetoed because the remaining stratification in the hole had not shown the slightest indication that there were any other remains involved. An additional ten inches of soil and sand had been removed below and around the remains as it was, per procedure, and there was nothing else there. He had not been able to point to specific physical evidence that led him to believe there was anyone else down there, but he hadn’t been able to let it go. He’d hated it, hated knowing and not being able to say why. Finally, one of the evidence techs had said for Christ’s sake, somebody dig a little further down so the guy will shut up about it, and we can get the fuck out of here.  


There had been a second skeleton, an extra two feet down. And everyone had shut up. It wasn’t even related to the one closer to the surface; someone had just found it easier to dig in that spot and likely hadn’t even known why.


And the Director of Forensics at the Sacramento County coroner’s office had said, you, you’re with us from now on.


“Yes or no,” Nguyen said.


“Yes,” Dean said immediately.


“But don’t let the coeds fall all over you,” Nguyen said.


“I can’t anyway,” Dean said. “I’m off the market again.”


Nguyen raised his eyebrows.


“Dr. Winchester,” Dean said.


Nguyen smiled. “Good. Finally.”


Dean felt himself quirk his brows again. What the hell was it with everybody acting like they knew anything about it? Like he and Dani were, what, destined for each other?


“Go write your damn reports,” Nguyen said, standing. “And start thinking about teaching.”


Dean rose carefully, but did everything he could to make sure it didn’t look that way. “Thanks,” he said. He was afraid to say anything else, because he’d start running at the mouth. He just knew it.


Nguyen looked at him for a moment and it seemed like he might say something else but just didn’t for the same reasons.


Dean tossed him a small salute and walked out.


When he made it upstairs and turned the corner in the hallway toward his own office, he had to stop short. The last time he’d been near his office, there’d been a fresh skeleton sitting in his chair and the distinct possibility that it would never be his office again.


Now there were balloons, a ridiculous number of them. Streamers, and printed banners, and all kinds of other crap he usually hated unless there was a little girl celebrating a birthday on the other side of it all. Some smartass had taped a skull and crossbones on his closed door.


“Jesus,” he said, and walked the last several yards to his door.


Hands reached out from the open door of the office across the hall from his, and latched onto his jacket. He turned with the beginnings of amused consternation coloring his thoughts, but that vanished when Lauren planted a kiss right on his mouth, nice and firm and tasting of fresh lipstick.


She grinned at him and patted his face. “Good to see you back, Winnie.”


Most of the rest of the place was behind her, still trying to hide in the empty office, crammed in there like a surprise party that had turned into a contest to see if they could get into the Guinness book of records for the most people in the smallest space. He laughed, and everybody spilled out into the hallway and damn near piled on him.


It was a good thing he didn’t have much trouble with the whole personal space thing.


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