Disinterment

(c)2006 gekizetsu


Part of the Salvation AU. Dean whumpage, wee!Winchesters in peril, gore, violence, angst, horror, cursing, some humor. Why do I even bother listing this stuff out? That describes every story I write. I borrowed a character from Maygra (but telling you which will spoil the tale). Make sure to read her Reminders Of Echoes at some point, the sooner the better, because it’s damn good and that story caused this one. Many thanks to Maygra for a quick beta; any mistakes are mine. Also, I sadly jimmied the science and Dean’s real capabilities as an FA to move the ‘plot’ along, and will be burning myself at the stake later as a result. Film at 11. Bring your own marshmallows, pls.


______________

Sitting over these bones

You can read in whatever you’re needing.

–-Dave Matthews Band, Warehouse

______________


-|-


Woodland, CA November 2026



It was only four, but he’d slept all he was going to.


Dean felt again for his keys and took another mental rundown of each of the six cases he had running at once, sorting by priority and location. The one in the Vallejo morgue, the floater. He hated that one the most. He never got used to the smell, no matter how many years of recovery he put in. The one in the garage of a burnt-out house in Joshua Tree, though, the mummy that had been there for thirty years - he really wanted that one moved up the list. Good times.


Wasn’t like he was running late. He didn’t keep hours. He came and went night and day and sometimes for nights and days, unless Charlie was there. He didn’t miss time with her, period. It had to be world war before he’d fly out anywhere when it was his turn with his girl. His priorities were well known and did not shift. The suits looked down their noses at him to his face but he knew damn well they kissed his ass the moment his back was turned. He wasn’t climbing the ladder anywhere and couldn’t have cared less about accolades and papers to his name. No one had the solve rate he did. They called him first. They could stuff everything else.


He shouldered a backpack full of files he technically wasn’t supposed to remove from the UC Davis med center office, but, what were they going to do, arrest him?


He took a final glance around his dark second floor apartment, following a ritual that had begun the day he’d moved in six years earlier. Everything was off, everything was locked, everything was where it was supposed to be. .38 in a hip holster, always armed, no need to carry anything larger anymore.


Five steps to the door, thoughts already veering toward the day ahead.


Then he came up short. That smell. There was nothing like it.


Raw meat, left out for days, and the sour tang of old blood. Just a touch of it, but enough to filter around a closed door. Something was dead out there.


He pulled his hand away from the doorknob and listened. He heard a car pass in the parking lot below, then a door closing somewhere on the first floor. He didn’t feel anything beyond the door that might have been a presence.


Still listening, Dean shrugged his pack off and knelt by the door, checking for evidence that someone might have tried to push it or pry at it from the other side. There was nothing, but he took his phone out with one hand, flipped it open without looking and placed it on the floor away from the door where it wouldn’t be in the way when he opened it. The other hand he used to unsnap his holster as he stood.


He opened the door like he would have any other time, but one step to the side, gun out first.


His eyes skated over everything they could take in at once - nothing on the door, no blood or claw marks or a note; nothing down the hallway, nothing pinned to the ceiling.


He saw the finger bones first.


A skeletal hand lay just a foot from his door, outstretched toward the door itself as if asking for help. Scraps of tendon barely held some of the phalanges together, and there were dozens of tiny bones arranged with care. The attached arm had been placed to give the rest of the skeleton an attitude of desperation, of reaching out one final time and hoping someone would come.


A fully articulated skeleton lay in the hallway, skull on its side with empty eye sockets facing the door. It was so complete and stiffly held together that it could have been any med school’s teaching prop, but for one thing.


It was fresh.


The smell in the hallway was still nothing more than the back room of a meat market, yesterday’s spoils on their way out. Slivers of shriveling flesh still clung to nearly every bone, brownish red in some spots, still bloody. The bones were a gleaming, damp white where they weren’t discolored with blood. From there Dean could see the nicks and cuts of some sharp instrument, possibly a scalpel if that much time and care had been taken to strip the bones down as if they belonged to any slaughterhouse animal. There was nothing around it - no clothing or trash, nothing else left behind.


He crouched near the door, taking just a moment to tuck away what he could of the sight. Prominent nasal bones, narrow nasal opening, reasonably flat facial profile. Caucasoid, then, roughly 6'. The heavier brow ridge and narrowed sciatic notch, the pubic bones bridging in an inverted V...male. Teeth straight and undamaged, well cared for. Without getting closer, he had no chance at guessing age, but he knew it was not a child or teen. If he had to guess with a glance then he’d say 35 to 60. He could see the nicks better from there, across both collarbones, in the sternum, across the ribs. It looked like a Y incision, the first cuts made for an autopsy.


There was no sound. None of his neighbors had smelled or seen it yet. They’d have been noisy about it. It was a good thing he was at the end of the hallway, not by the stairs. It gave him a little time.


Several things flashed through his head in quick succession. The bones were for him; he wouldn’t be allowed to touch the investigation because of protocol; and anyone who stripped a person down like so much meat was crazier than a shithouse rat and twice as likely to be gearing up for something else.


He backed away, gun held out toward the open door out of caution, and went for his digital camera. He’d at least get his own pictures for reference, knowing they would allow him to see things later that he wouldn’t pick up on right then. Camera in one hand and gun still in the other, Dean took several photos from as many angles as he could from inside the apartment. He didn’t dare step over or around the bones; there would be evidence he couldn’t see, and no way was he going to risk contaminating the site.


He tucked the camera away in a jacket pocket and reached down for the phone without looking, one-touch dialing as he brought it to his ear. When the voice he was hoping for picked up, he said, “Sam.”


There was the briefest of pauses while Sam woke up enough to pick up on Dean’s tone. “Tell me.”


“I might need a lawyer,” Dean said without a trace of flippancy. “And I’m calling a lockdown.”


-|-



“If someone were to do this,” Sam said, “...you’d know who.”


Sam had shown up within forty minutes and flashed ID, and it still made Dean blink when their last name got as much recognition as it did. Neither of them had done badly; but they hadn’t been running around waving their arms for attention, either. They just seemed to garner it. A few of Sam’s cases over the years had been higher profile, and that one mob-connected idiot making threats during his own trial had been the most TV coverage they’d ever had...but it was all mostly an undercurrent of hey these are standup guys. The cops, the feds, the medical community. They were bright separately and brighter together and they’d earned a reputation that made strangers nod in respect.


The skeleton was covered by then and the hallway had been taped off to keep the looky-loos at bay, but the crime scene techs allowed Sam to have a look before he stepped over and could corner Dean in the kitchen.


“They went to a lot of trouble and weren’t seen doing it, and they posed the whole thing just so,” Sam said. “For you. Who’ve you pissed off in the last year who would have no problem doing this to somebody?”


When he said ‘doing this’, Dean knew Sam meant butchering someone down to bones.


“The list of people I haven’t pissed off is shorter,” Dean said. “But none of ‘em would do this.” His eyes were darting around to see how close the cleanup crew was to being inside earshot, so Sam knew he was holding back.


“The bones aren’t even wired together,” Sam said almost to himself. “This took a lot of patience.”


“It’s so damn fresh the ligaments are still holding the bones,” Dean said. “So he’s been dead maybe a day, tops. It doesn’t fit anybody’s MO. And it’s not like they were trying to keep the skeleton from being ID’d, since the bones weren’t damaged and the teeth are all still there. Corpse didn’t walk here, and you’re right, it took patience. No way I wouldn’t have heard any of this going on right out in the hallway. No way.”


“They’re not gonna let you in on this,” Sam said.


Dean shook his head. “So some quiet, crazy bastard makes it look like a Halloween decoration is asking for help at my door, they don’t leave another damn thing behind, and they don’t ring the bell and run.”


“A little too much for any human,” Sam said. “I’m not seeing anything living doing this. What would try and get our attention this way?”


Our attention. Dean liked that even if it was presumptive of Sam. Like bothering one Winchester meant things knew they were bothering every Winchester. Dean shrugged. “Can’t totally rule humans out on this one,” he said, but it was evasive and came with a pointed glance at Sam. “I’m not taking any chances.”


It was the second time a full scale family alert had been called since the rule had been invented. The minute kids had come into their lives, they’d agreed that if something got weird, they’d set up a plan for dropping everything, rounding everybody up, and ducking for cover. Right then Sarah and the girls were downstairs in the locked car, and Sarah was armed. For people who’d spent most of their lives on high alert, it had taken Sam and Dean an alarming amount of time to come to grips with the fact that they had to do this again.


“Charlie,” Sam said, looking up.


“Jason has her,” Dean said. Danielle’s brother would never have Sam-status with Dean, no one could, but they were as close as Dean ever allowed a non-blood relation to get. “I called him right after I called you. Dani’s gone in to work and is ignoring me.”


Sam was careful to keep his expression as even as possible. Dean looked up from the floor and stared right at him in a near-challenge.


“I don’t give a fuck what you’re working on,” Dean said.


“I love it when you forget who I am,” Sam said. “Sarah loves it too. We can take care of - “


“This isn’t some stupid ass, trumped-up wannabe mobster bullshit,” Dean said, negating how serious the previous lockdown had been a few years earlier and how he’d overreacted to it. “It takes way too much patience to do that to someone whether they’re wiggling or not.” He pointed toward the door and the hallway beyond. He could still smell it, death and waste and the anguish of pending loss. “That’s not guns and ambush. That’s destruction for the fun of it.”


“Our house is like a goddamn fortress,” Sam said. “You think I don’t get it?”


“I don’t want you thinking you’re less attractive to this thing, whatever it is, than I am,” Dean said.


Sam looked at him for a moment because it was as close as Dean ever got to saying anything along the lines of there’s no way it can’t already tell how much I love you and can’t lose you.


“If it’s not human, then it probably still looks like anybody else.” Dean lowered his voice, aware of the kind of listening skills cops had. “Skinwalker, maybe. Something mean and crazy enough to not have any problem trying to mimic a little girl.”


Sam shifted his weight as if trying to shove that thought away, looking out toward the livingroom and wondering how much it really had to do with Dean. Message or warning, he couldn’t tell. “Don’t assume,” he said softly. “There’s gotta be something to go by. Did you...?”


“Yeah,” Dean said. “And the whole thing was hot. I couldn’t get readings on the hallway - I haven’t been out there yet.”


EMF readings. So, whatever had dropped the skeleton off had either not been human or not fully human.


“How hot,” Sam said.


“Lukewarm,” Dean said. “On an even spread. Way too even. If it was just moved by...something, there should have been hot spots, not the whole damn thing. Not ruling humans out on this.”


Sam frowned. It didn’t make any sense to him. “You think maybe the skeleton belongs to a skinwalker and it’s been dropped off by someone who knows too much about what happened in St. Louis?”


Dean shook his head. “What I think’s not worth shit right now,” he said. “When I can get out of here, I’m gonna get Dani, then I’m gonna check in at the office and head your way. So be prepared.”


Sam had no doubt what ‘get’ meant.


“Be careful until we know what this is,” he said to Dean. “Or I’ll ‘get’ you.”


-|- 



"Dr. Winchester isn't seeing anyone this morning," the receptionist said coolly.


Cute.


This one - Patty, Patricia, whatever it said on the nameplate, was new and was gatekeeper for the four other eggheads that shared the office space at UC Davis with Danielle and he wasn’t going to even try for charm. He was in no mood.


He planted his hands on the edge of the desk with a smirk. "She is now," he said, then shoved himself away and headed for the hallway beyond. He heard the distinctive click of a receiver being plucked up behind him and didn't care whether it was to warn his ex or to call security. If the new chick was too dumb to know that his ex didn't need security, that was her problem.


He'd been there often enough to ignore the directory, and when he whipped her office door open, she was already chastising him.


"No. You don't pull this stuff in here!"


"I told you to get your ass to Sam's," Dean said, closing the door behind him with a foot, eyes locked on Danielle as she came out from behind her desk. Designations and degrees on the walls, muted colors, hardwoods, a framed picture of their daughter in a place of honor on that suspiciously organized desk. He didn’t get it, didn’t get her, maybe never had, but at least she still looked him in the eye when she spoke to him. And kept his name.


"I still don't jump when you give orders," she said, stopping within a foot of him, hands on hips, honey-colored eyes snapping. "If you want to sequester Charlie there until you catch whoever this is, then fine. But no way am I - "


"Somebody dumped a butchered carcass at my door," Dean said, using the voice that made Sam froth at the mouth, the same tone he’d grown up listening to his father bestow on anyone who wasn’t stepping into line. "That means it's safe to jump to the conclusion that they don't love me. They may not love me enough to decide to come after my family. You may not like it, but you're still my family."


"The last time you pulled this, it was for nothing," she said. "Nothing happened. I have a hell of a lot of work to do."


"The last time, some dumbass was leaving messages on Sam's phone that they were gonna hang him with his own intestines," Dean said. "And your logic sucks, Little Miss PhD."


Jesus, that had been an ugly couple of weeks. Sam hadn't been the only one on that legal team getting threats and Dean knew Sam was being watched and could take care of himself. So they'd decided at the time that Dean would watch everybody else while Sam went about his business. Dean had not trusted the extra patrol on Sam's house and had burned the candle at both ends prowling the first floor of that house at night, wanting badly to kill something, catching only moments of rest during the day. It had been Sarah, promising to walk around the house fully armed even while toting eighteen-month-old Mary with her, and Danielle trading off shifts with him that convinced him to calm down a little.


Present day Danielle folded her arms. "What are you going to do, Dean?" she said. "Cart me out of here over your shoulder?"


The grin she got was pure wickedness.


She only had time to widen her eyes in disbelief. After that, angry as she was, she decided to discourage the receptionist from dialing 911.


After all, she'd known better.


And it was hard to be dignified while your ass was in the air six feet off the ground.


-|-


“You know I can’t tell you,” Lauren told him over the phone. 


Dean headed to the space he referred to as his public office at the Sacramento County coroner’s office. It was one small room of twelve on the third floor, and his was the final one on the right. He kept a bunch of crap there about the cases he’d ever been involved in, including the ‘unofficial’ ones. It often looked like a suicide bomber had chosen to go to the light somewhere around the vicinity of his desk. Dani had been there once - once - and had never been brave enough to enter again. He had his own system for finding things. He knew exactly where everything was the same way he had once memorized his father’s journal. Keeping it in a mess kept anyone else from poking at his stuff.


His ears were still ringing from an argument that felt as old as time with Dani, about respect, blah blah blah. Whatever. So he called ahead to where he knew his skeleton (his, the whole damn thing was his whether they liked it or not) had ended up.


The Sacramento medical examiner was tall, brunette, and ignored Dean completely every chance she got. She reminded him that he was taken no matter how many times he reminded her he had been divorced for six years, and then she wouldn’t elaborate. She just kept giving him that nutty stare chicks often gave, the one that said you know what I’m talking about even when he didn’t. It was often followed by the one that said well if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you! and it was just crazy. Whatever it was, she had no idea what she was not-talking about. They didn’t cross paths often since most of the bodies that needed Lauren Gresham’s help were too fresh to need Dean’s. So naturally he made the most of each incident.


“Are you gonna make me hear it on the news?” Dean said. “I can check the missings for a white guy about his size, and waste time I don’t have, or you can tell me who he is as soon as you find out. You’ll get dentals back from odontology long before you get DNA.”


“Winnie,” she said, using a nickname he hated with the passion of a thousand white-hot suns, “You’re not going to get what you want by breaking me down. We have to follow the rules on this one, especially since you’re one of our guys, and you just need to go about your business for awhile and let us work.”


Our guys. Cops, medical examiners, CSIs, our guys. She was reminding him that if it turned out to be any kind of a threat to him, he would have backup across the board. He pissed off a fair percentage of the game-players in the field, the ones bucking for promotion who spent time shuffling paper and bullshit, but no one stood off to the side when an outside threat came calling.


“See, I can’t leave it alone,” he said.


“Learn how,” she said. “Or I’ll call Sam.”


“You can’t sic him on me,” Dean said, unable to take offense. “I’m gonna find out. I just thought I’d give you the courtesy of having the chance to cut to the chase.”


“Yeah, well, as much as I appreciate that, I mostly just want you to stay out of it,” she said.


“Nice Y incision he had,” Dean said. “Nice scalpel technique.”


There was a pause. “Reminds me of a case from the seventies,” Lauren said. “Used to talk about it in criminology class all the time. Too bad I can’t remember the specifics, though.”


“Right,” Dean said, picking up on the hint. “Too bad. There’s just so many crazy scalpel-wielders in human history that it’s hard to keep ‘em apart. Starting with good old Jack, right?”


“Jack the Ripper disemboweled women,” Lauren said. “He didn’t do things like clean their bones without using a sharp instrument beyond the initial Y incision.”


So, she’d already had a chance to look at it close enough to find no scrape marks on the bones themselves. That wasn’t possible - skeletal muscle didn’t just peel off. And nothing blunt would work. “He didn’t dip them in chemicals, either, to get the flesh to fall right off.”


“No, Jack didn’t do anything like that, or there would have been traces left behind,” she said. “Even after all these years.”


No scraping, no chemicals. Dean’s mind ran between possibilities and did nothing but come up with more questions. If there was another way to clean a skeleton and leave it fully articulated without damaging the bones or the connecting ligaments in less than a day, he was not aware of it. Not lime. And bugs took longer. Beetles were still often used to clean bones, but they took days and weeks. He and his geek-boy sidekick were going to have to do a bit of research on this one.


“Well, I hate to take up all your time,” he said. “With work-stuff, I mean.”


“Lay low, Winnie,” she said.



-|-

 

Oak Park neighborhood, Sacramento, CA


“So what’s really going on?” Allie said.


Everybody else was in the house. Dean had been on the back porch making calls and mulling things over for awhile to keep out of Dani’s sight and Sarah had made an effort to keep the entire pack of girls off him for at least a few minutes. Allie was not easily deterred and had found a way past. She sprawled in one of the patio chairs next to him and was watching him from the corners of her eyes.


Christo was at his feet as he always was when Dean came anywhere near, tongue lolling, sprawled on his back so he could see Dean easily, watching him for hints of wanting to get up.


“Why, because you guys were yanked out of school and your mom was sitting in the car outside my apartment all armed and you couldn’t come in?” Dean said. “What makes you think anything is going on?”


Allie smirked. She often looked just like Sam when she did, and Dean stilled the urge to ruffle her hair. She was 14 and it was no longer amusing to have her hair messed up, even by Dean. “It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it,” she said. “American Government is boring as hell, but not telling us anything just isn’t fair.”


“Just being cautious,” Dean said.


“Like the symbols at the doors and windows,” she said, not-so-carefully broaching an old subject yet again. “I looked them all up, you know. I know what they’re for. My family’s really superstitious and never talks about it.”


They did not discuss the life that had Come Before around the kids. Not yet. The girls were required to learn how to use weapons and defend themselves, but they did not get lessons on recognizing demons or understanding the differences between shades, ghosts and thought-forms. There was nothing under the bed, and when their fathers occasionally disappeared for several days and came back with new bruises and cuts, it was just something they did. Their kids were not going to live that life, they were not going to risk losing any of them to the things that no longer ran quite as rampant in the dark. There would always be something out there, and there were plenty of other hunters to go and get them. It was by special favor alone that Sam and Dean ventured back out, for the bigger things.


Allie had seen enough to know what was going on, but the subject was still off limits regardless.


“That’s different,” Dean said. “There’s no harm in asking for good luck.”


“But you’ll tell me more eventually, right?” she said. “There’s something about all of us.”


He skirted that as fast as he could, knowing it wasn’t fair. “It’s a little like what happened a few years ago,” he said. “When your dad was getting threats about a case.”


“That was when I was like five or six,” she said. “I only sort of remember that.”


“Just somebody messing around,” Dean said. “Trying to get my attention. I don’t take risks with you guys, that’s all.”


She thought about that for a moment, blue eyes scanning the yard. “When you say ‘you guys’ you usually mean dad, too. Are you okay?”


He wasn’t sure how to take that. She was often too grown-up these days for his taste, although he loved the moments when they both closed ranks against the rest of the family. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the right to know; it was that she shouldn’t have been worried to begin with. It was his job to worry, and Allie being old enough to start the incline to becoming an equal was hard for him to come to grips with.


“I’m incredibly okay,” he said. “Nothing I can’t handle.”


She scooted her chair closer, then leaned over and rested her head on his arm, which was the best response of all.


-|-


“You can’t call a lockdown and then violate it,” Sam said. He was trying for patience again and sometimes Dean hated that. It felt like hedging, like dishonesty, because what Sam really wanted was to shout and Dean could feel it even over the phone. He had no patience for what he thought of as dramatics on Sam’s part, but when Sam held back Dean felt ripped off.


Dean had been up at some ungodly hour and checked on the house with the dog at his heels before taking off without a word to anybody.


“This is something I happen to be a goddamn expert on,” Dean said. “This is my thing. And don’t you pull that bullshit on me, you wandered around on the last one.”


“With cops all over the place,” Sam said. “Cops and security and cars with bulletproof windows, in public, and you watching our family. You’ve got nothing like that, Dean, and even if you did, you’re gonna do what you always do and just walk around like you’re fuckin’ indestructible.”


Sam didn’t curse half as much as he used to; he’d broken himself of the habit after Allie had been born. So when he did, when he trotted out words like fuckin’ in an average phone conversation, it was because he was pissed.


“I know what I’m doing,” Dean said softly, a prelude to telling Sam to go hang.


“You need backup,” Sam said.


“I need to get in before anybody else comes in, and snag the prelims on this thing,” Dean said. “I need you to look up all the serial killers of the seventies for me and find somebody who liked to just strip people down.”


“Why the seventies?” Sam said.


“Because I got a tip,” Dean said, sounding mildly smug.


“Because you suckered Lauren into saying something,” Sam said, ruining it. “It’s entirely possible that she’s pointing you in the wrong direction just to get rid of you.”


“Not this time,” Dean said. “Not when it’s this close to home.”


-|-


It didn’t take long to get the final measurements of the skeleton; he’d been right. Male, narrowed down to 35-45 in age based on the vertebrae and the knitting of the pelvic bones. There were already putty molds of the cuts in the bones. They were moving fast, faster than normal because it was so damn weird and so obviously vicious. It should have been a week at minimum before any of that was on the table. He emailed the stats to Sam and went to work for the day like nothing was happening, because there were other people on his roster who hadn’t been identified yet and deserved it just as much. First come, first served in his line of work, and there were plenty to serve.


That damn floater, for instance, found in San Pablo Bay, lodged in a cement drainage pipe. Bones and adipocere, clothing missing, no jewelry. Adipocere was the worst substance known to Dean, a soapy wax converted from fat that smelled like no grave he’d ever opened. The bones would be clean by the time he was done, and if he was lucky he’d have an ID match on it by the end of the week. He’d see if there was still any brain tissue in the skull before he boiled it. It was useless to him for identification purposes, but getting another example of what weeks underwater did to gray matter in a still-sealed brain case never hurt. More notes to add to the seemingly unorganized paper-piles and journals he kept around.


-|-


“We’ve got three possibilities,” Sam told him over the phone at about four that afternoon.


“You’re not so bad,” Dean said. “Still got your research chops on, huh?”


“I’m a lawyer, Dean,” Sam said, but the scolding was done with an audible grin. “Jesus.”


“Good for you,” Dean said. “And the three finalists are...”


“Dominick Hale, hospital intern in Klamath Falls, Oregon, killed six people with a scalpel between 1971 and 1976. Caught in 1977, still in prison. Earnest Mata, owner of a dry cleaning business in Elko, Nevada, killed twelve from 1969 to 1977, caught in 1980, still in prison, on death row since 1986. Dwight Kelley, TV repairman in Shasta Lake, killed maybe seven around Redding, Anderson, Red Bluff and Corning between 1975 and 1979, no further info. All three used a Y incision on their victims at one point or another and then carved them up, left pieces around.”


“That last one ran along the I-5,” Dean said. “He’s the most local, I’ll start with him. What do you mean, ‘maybe seven’?”

 

“Seven anybody knows about,” Sam said. “Can’t find anything about whether he’s still in prison...guess he was some kind of hardcase, wouldn’t show where all the bodies were.”


“Where was he convicted?” Dean said.


“In Redding,” Sam said. “Know anybody over there?”


“Do elk rut in October?” Dean said.


“I wish you’d stick to bears shitting in the woods,” Sam said. “I can find out where the evidence archive is kept, but it would be great if you’d actually go in the front door.” He paused. “And get your ass back over to my place when you’re done for the day. And don’t make the day too long.”


“And miss the chance to live with Dani under the same roof again?” Dean said. “Christ, no.”


“She’s fine,” Sam said. “She gets it, you know. But putting her over your shoulder? C’mon. You want her to try and kill you, you love that kind of attention.”


Dean laughed. No sense denying it. “I’ll try and make it for dinner,” he said. “Without telling any of you what I’ve spent the day doing.”


“I’m afraid to ask, but hey,” Sam said. “You know me.”


“Two words,” Dean said. “Grave wax.”


“And on that note, I’ll see you later,” Sam said.


-|-


Sam hung up and watched Mary pass in front of his office door for the third time with Charlie in tow and the dog following close behind. Charlie had a blanket over her head and was blindly being led along by one hand. They were circling the living room for some reason and he felt it was best not to ask.


Sarah came to the door. “How intrepid is he now?” she said.


Sam rubbed his face with both hands as if washing without water. “The most,” he said. “It’ll work out, it’ll turn out to be some lunatic and he’ll be caught and everything will go back to what we think of as normal.”


She came into the room and moved behind him so she could rub his shoulders. “He won’t turn his back,” she said. “I’d tell you not to worry, but I’d be wasting my time.”


Sam reached back for one of her hands. “We’re not in the safest professions in the world,” he said.


“Safer than what you did when I first met you,” Sarah said. “A hell of a lot safer. But neither of you were ever very good at safe.”


He smiled unseen.


“It’ll be okay, Sam,” she said.


When the phone rang again, Sam leaned over to pick it up without letting go of Sarah’s hand.


“It matches a blade we have in evidence,” Dean said without so much as a hello.


“Then you know who it is,” Sam said. Sarah squeezed his hand and leaned against him.


“Yeah,” Dean said. “Belonged to Dwight Kelley. He’s been dead since ‘83, when he was killed in prison. The blade hasn’t been out of storage since, but the cuts on my skeleton were made by that blade.”


Sam shrugged. “Not that hard to mess with evidence records. Someone takes it out, and starts up where the last guy left off.”


“Doing exactly the same thing?” Dean said. “Butchering people in the exact same way, left handed, using all the same cuts.” His tone said no, Sam.


Sam was silent.


“That’s talent,” Dean said.


“So where’s he buried?” Sam said. “Because digging somebody up is a lot more risky now than when we were -“


“He’s not buried,” Dean said. “That’s the beauty of it. His family donated him to science. Imagine the look on my face right now, Sam.”


Sam didn’t have to. “Okay, so...”


“He was a goddamn teaching skeleton for awhile,” Dean said. “They boiled him and sealed him and hung him up for science. He moved around to three different teaching colleges in the 80's because no one wanted him when they found out who he was. That’s why they quit doing it, by the way, using real people for their bones. Sooner or later someone finds out who that person was and in his case, it was a little too creepy, especially when one of the students turned out to be the niece of one of his victims.”


“Great,” Sam said. “But you’re not telling me all this just because you know it. What really happened?”


“Everywhere this prop went, people disappeared,” Dean said. “Here, North Dakota, New Mexico. No reason to make a connection until now. He was finally retired and packed away again as evidence in his own murder case and it’s been quiet since.”


“You think this thing is cursed,” Sam said. “He was a murderer and then he was murdered, so, what? Cursed bones?” Both of Sarah’s hands came down on his shoulders again, then she moved to close Sam’s office door before putting her back against it and watching him.


“Only one way to be sure,” Dean said.


“Hey,” Sam said. “C’mon. You can’t do that. Don’t just burn an old box of bones without knowing for sure. Not now. Someone catches you or finds out and it’s all over. Evidence tampering means the end for you.”


“I’m just gonna look at him, nothing else,” Dean said. “If there’s nothing there, there’s nothing more to do. It’s just pretty interesting that it’s the same blade and the same patterns.”


“And when it turns out to just be some copycat killer?” Sam said.


“Then I’ll find the evidence and let someone put him away,” Dean said with a laugh. “I mean, if there’s no, you know, accidental death or anything first.”


Sam shook his head on the other end of the line to keep himself from getting impatient with Dean. “As much as I love playing devil’s advocate with you, I really want you to just let everybody else solve it,” Sam said. “You’re way too close and you’ve already got your hands full. Just keep an eye on it and back away.”


Dean should have had some sort of comeback or told Sam to quit worrying. When he didn’t do either, Sam felt a zing of dread. Dean was going to do whatever the hell he wanted, and leave Sam out of it. And that was worse.


-|-


Dean actually did show for dinner. After several minutes of kids and dog hugging him and paw-slapping, respectively, he winked at Dani and kissed Sarah. Dani waved a dismissive hand at him and went back to telling Sarah about an article she’d read on the role of women in law. Dean stood in front of Sam for a moment with Charlie on his hip even though she was pretty much too big for it, at nine. The men in her family were all damn tall and well built and it would be a long time yet before they stopped picking her up at whim. She had no complaints.


She slung an arm around her father’s neck. “If I can’t go to school, bring me to work with you,” she said.


“It’s the boringest of boring,” Dean said. “Why would I do that to you, when you have Sam and Sarah and mom all to yourself, and all these cousins, at your beck and call all day?”


She tilted her head at Sam and grinned. “We could go to the Shooting House,” she said.


“Weekends only,” Dean said. “It won’t be for long, Pook. You guys get your work sent home?”


Charlie nodded, still looking at Sam. “It’s all easy stuff. Allie helped me with the math, though.”


“Allie knows a lot of math,” Sam said.


“Why don’t you guys go do sidewalk-chalk in the backyard until dinner,” Dean said.


“Only if you come out and let me do your outline,” Charlie said.


“Deal.”


Chalk outlines meant something very different to the younger kids in the family than they did to the adults, luckily. Allie thought it was hilarious and often asked Dean for crime scene tape. Her bedroom door was swathed with it.


-|-


Dinner was oddly very comfortable. For just that space of time, it was like it had been years earlier, even if there was something incredibly uncertain hanging over them.


After Dean helped with the dishes and played a single game of Chutes and Ladders with the younger girls, he ended up on the back porch with Sam, Sarah and Dani. The resulting quiet was companionable. There was talk of kids and the latest news and an episode of a popular show, the four of them sliding back into something easy.


Dean purposely slept on the floor in Allie’s room, where Charlie had chosen to bunk, and the dog stayed pressed to his side the entire time.


-|-


When he went in to the office early the next morning, what he thought of as the illusion of contentment evaporated as soon as he unlocked his door.


-|-


Sam was certain Dean was still in the house when the phone woke him, and cursed when he discovered otherwise.


-|-


Sam stood and stared.


Sitting in Dean’s office chair, pulled away from the desk, amidst piles of papers and books and models of bones and computer equipment, sat a skeleton.


A fresh one.


The skull had canted to one side, but the neck bones held, supported by the remains of the trapezius muscles. It had been placed in the chair in such a way that it sat as if contemplating something on the opposite wall. Radius, ulna and wrist rested along the armrests. Nothing else in the room was out of place, or so Dean had said, and no one else but him could possibly know. No footprints, no sign of dragging, no sign of the door being forced.


Sharp marks on the collarbones and sternum. Empty orbital sockets gazed dispassionately at nothing, or maybe just eternity. They were clean; someone had taken special care to clear them out.


“Same EMF signal,” Dean said. “Evenly spaced, all over. It’s something on the bones, not part of them. Then there’s a different signal, right around the ribs. Doesn’t match anything else I’ve seen. Two different signatures, same bones. This one’s older than the one at my place, probably a couple of weeks.”


“This is so illegal,” Sam said, knowing it was unnecessary but compelled to say so anyway. “Walking all over the scene. Jesus, Dean.”


“Fuck legal,” Dean said. “This just went up a whole ‘nother rung, and I want goddamn answers. I don’t want empirical evidence right now from anybody but you.”


Sam stared, let his eyes go slightly out of focus. Dean knew damn well it didn’t work that way, that he didn’t call it out of the air. Things came to him. But if he was open enough for it, every now and then he could catch a break.


Dean hadn’t turned the lights on, so all the daylight that made it in was what could slip past the drawn blinds on the northern facing wall. If Sam looked, he could find a basic pattern to what Dean had done with his office, in the way things were placed, in the way symbols were incorporated into the commonplace. And the salt at the door and windows. Nothing evil had been -


There was a twist, a moment of vertigo, and nothing to see with it. He got a sense of something without remorse and something made of nothing but. The conflicting suggestions made the vertigo worse, and then he felt something tug at the world a little. Rage and recrimination, an argument over bones, over the life they had once held up. The rage winning out and the recrimination unable to make a difference in any way but this, propping bones, propping all that was left of the last of a thread that was dwindling.


“That doesn’t make any sense,” Sam said, and realized he was sitting on the floor with his back against a wall, one knee leaning against a stack of hardbound texts, Dean crouched in front of him. “None of that makes any damn sense.”


“Neither do you right now,” Dean said, frowning at him. “You want out of here?”


Sam shook his head in a dual effort to clear it and answer Dean. “Not a thread,” he said. “A line. It just...seemed like a thread. The last of a line, someone’s trying to save something.”


“So they’re dropping skeletons on us,” Dean said. “What the hell does that? Never mind.” He helped Sam to his feet and out of the office, closing the door behind. “You were never here. I’m gonna walk you down because if you fall down the stairs, I’ll kick your ass.”


“I’m fine,” Sam said. “I’m trying to tell you the bones aren’t a threat. What left them here is trying to get help.”


“What,” Dean said. “Why can’t it just draw on the walls in blood like everything else does? Get out of here.”


“You’re the one who dragged me in here,” Sam said.


“I didn’t think you’d actually find anything!”


When they got outside, Sam clapped his hands down on Dean’s shoulders in such a way that he could try to make it look like it wasn’t affectionate. “Don’t go back in there,” he said. “It’s already where it needs to be, let someone come up and get it for you, then go home with me. Not only are they not gonna let you in on this, now they’re probably not gonna let you in at all.”


Dean shrugged him off. “I’m not gonna get thrown out of my own office,” he said.


“If there’s anything you want out of there, get it now,” Sam said. “You know how this looks and you know how it has to be handled. Don’t make it so that you really do need a lawyer.”


Dean stared at him with open recrimination, wanting him to be wrong.


-|-


He gave the same stare to his boss two hours later.


Dr. Gabe Nguyen was director of the Sacramento County coroner’s office and Dean’s first and only supervisor since he’d been hired on. They were both men of few words, and Nguyen knew that Dean worked best when left to his own devices. The results had been obvious over time and Nguyen had fielded whatever fallout had occasionally resulted when Dean left the beaten path.


Now he’d just put him on indefinite leave.


“You are not even insinuating that I had anything to do with this!” Dean shouted.


“Lower your voice,” Nguyen said. “Two skeletons left out for you looks pretty damn weird. How the hell could you not be involved? Either someone is after you, or you’re after you.”


“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Dean said, lowering his voice only for the worse, into a growl he reserved for people he didn’t mean to keep any kind of respect for.


“It doesn’t look good, Dean,” Nguyen said. “I’m not going to treat you any differently than I would anyone else. And since you’ve gone out of your way not to make friends higher up, and certain factions would love to see you go altogether, this is a little harder than it has to be.”


“If I was gonna do something like this, I sure as hell wouldn’t leave whole skeletons outside my own apartment and my own office,” Dean said.


“No, you wouldn’t,” Nguyen said. “Not if you were reasonably sane.”


Dean stared at him, trying desperately not to lose his temper.


“Don’t make this worse than it is,” Nguyen said, his expression and tone adding an extra layer of meaning to the words. “Let us figure this out. Go on vacation for once in your life. Get your kid and get out of sight.”


“If you know something, then just tell me,” Dean said, the anger gone in place of something almost unfamiliar to him - genuine worry. “I can help with this. I - “ he balked, unwilling to say anything that would make it sound like he knew too much. How the hell could he give away what he knew without getting labeled a nut? There was no way to say I know more about this type of thing than possibly anyone else ever alive. His two separate lives were slamming into each other and he was almost too equipped for the situation, and hobbled by not wanting one to ruin the other. “Jesus, Gabe. Come on.”


“This is too weird, Dean,” Nguyen said. “I want you on it, but you have too much to do with it. One body is a possible random dump. Two, in your personal space, is a message. You, not showing me the slightest sign that you’re concerned for yourself, is the last nail. If you know something, I need you to tell me. I’m not blind, and I’m not just some goddamned administrator. You’re not even acting surprised that something like this is happening.”


And Dean got it. He’d forgotten to even bother pretending to be a civilian. His life as a hunter, his ability to distance himself from things that would send anyone else screaming, was screwing him at the worst possible time. What made him the best in his field was now biting him in the ass.


“Do you want me to throw a panic?” Dean said. “I don’t do that. You know I don’t do that. I couldn’t do this goddamn job if I did that.”


“But something’s going on,” Nguyen said. “And you don’t trust me enough to tell me everything. That doesn’t leave me a hell of a lot of choices. Give me your ID and wait for me to contact you.”


Dean kept staring at him for a moment, waiting for him to back down, waiting for the slightest sign that he was only bluffing to get Dean to talk.


When he handed his ID over and walked out, it felt like a line had been crossed, like he could finally hunt this thing unimpeded. But it also felt like something was dying, something he’d worked too hard for, and he wanted to lash out.


He’d save it. He’d save it all for whatever was hunting him back.


-|-


He wandered for several hours, rearranging what he knew in his head until he had a good rundown on what he could do next without the permission or support of his superiors. When his phone went off with a voicemail notification, he opened it immediately.


“Several alleles in common,” Lauren’s voice said. “Probably cousins. Not solid Caucasian, either.” There was nothing else.


Related. Great. Grabbed by design, placed as a sign for him, or totally unknown by the killer? He remembered Sam saying the last of a line, someone’s trying to save something. Cousins, the last of a line. What the hell cared about that kind of thing after someone was dead?


When his phone rang again moments later, it was Sam. He didn’t tell Sam what else had happened that morning. It would only complicate things if Sam knew he’d been put on leave.


“Two others in the last three months,” Sam said. “One stripped all the way down, left in a crawlspace. Plumber was called for leaky pipes, found it down there. Male, 42, Joseph Carrack. The other was Gary Torin, 36, found as a complete skeleton with no tissues in a dumpster behind a restaurant in Redding.”


“Both six foot, I’ll bet,” Dean said almost to himself.


“Like the other skeletons,” Sam said. “Choosing guys of similar height and race, but otherwise unconnected, from what I can tell.”


“Now I just want you to clear your cache and ignore this whole thing,” Dean said. “We’re done here.”


“What?” Sam said. “We’re finally getting somewhere on this.”


“Yeah, well, you’ve been a big help, Sam, but the rest is all mine.”


“Don’t you keep me out of this,” Sam said angrily.


“It’s got nothing to do with you, Sam,” Dean said.


“Don’t you ever say that again,” Sam said, voice almost unrecognizable with sudden rage. “You like to pretend you’re on your own and it’s bullshit. Just stop. If it has anything to do with you, then yeah, it has to do with me.”


“I have to do this one on my own,” Dean said. “If I fuck this up, Sam, it needs to hit me only. I’m not gonna take the rest of you with me. Whatever this is, it’s after me, and I want you to just keep everybody safe.”


“Whatever hits you hits the rest of us,” Sam said. “What the fuck do we have to do to get you to understand that? What do you want? Do you just not want it?”


“You’re blowing this way out of proportion, like usual,” Dean said, his own anger finally audible. “I’m not gonna endanger my whole family with this, I’ve got a plan and I’m gonna get this taken care of.”


“If you’re in danger, so are we,” Sam said, voice suddenly calm, and that was much worse than the rage; Sam had descended all the way to dangerous that quickly. “If anything happens to you, Dean, it will kill us all.”


Dean sighed.


“These guys are all your height and shape and age range, Dean,” Sam said. “I picked that up.”


“The two left out for me were related,” Dean said. “Cousins. I don’t know if the killer knew. I’m gonna go with the idea that the fact that they were related has something to do with it, because that’s too much for coincidence. This is a lot weirder than even we’re used to, Sam, and the fewer people involved, the better.”


“I can appreciate that,” Sam said, voice still low and abnormally calm. “And now you can stuff it. Don’t just take off on us. Let me help.”


“Without knowing why I’m the one who gets all this attention, there’s nothing to help with,” Dean said, softer. “I can’t wait for something else to just happen. The next thing might be something nobody can stand. So just shut up and sit tight, would you? Anything I do from here is probably not gonna be legal.”


“What the hell are - “


“Sam,” Dean said. “I said, not legal. That’s the end of your involvement. Stay out, and I keep in touch. Otherwise, I will disappear.”


“Bullshit,” Sam snapped. “You wouldn’t do that to Charlie.”


“But I’d do it for Charlie,” Dean said. “Be ready for anything, Sam, and watch our girls. That’s your job. Nothing else. Please.”


“Can’t you just - “


“Can’t you just trust me?” Dean said. “I’m not dad. Sam, please. Please.”


“You check in with me, or I’ll find you,” Sam said. “I mean it, Dean.”


“I know you do,” Dean said. “Look, I’m gonna be working all night on this, so I’ll call you tomorrow. It’ll be okay, Sam.”


He flipped his phone closed before Sam could answer. Then he held it to his forehead for a long moment before he could find the strength to just get to his feet and go.


-|-


Sam hung up and stared at the phone for a moment like he wanted to crush it in one hand.


-|-

 

Dean knew how to get past the security of his own workplace, electronic and otherwise. Old habits died hard or never died at all, and his penchant for casing any building he was in had never done him any harm. He’d never intended to break into the place - he could come and go at all hours, or he’d been able to until that morning. But being prepared for anything was hardwired in and he went with it. The evidence lockup in the basement of the Redding courthouse was the same, all state and federal systems were the same, it was their one great weakness.


Dwayne Kelley’s retired skeleton was not where it was listed on the record posted at the head of each aisle of battered metal shelving.


There were other boxes, white with permanent-marker scrawls at each end with case numbers and dates, shoved inward to make the absence less obvious. He examined the entire row, then the one below, and found nothing else out of place.


When he skated the beam from his flashlight down along the bottom row, and the way to the back row, there was a box shoved back under the bottom of the shelving. It barely fit - there wasn’t clearance enough to accommodate the lid.


Had someone purposely put it away incorrectly? Had someone else had the skeleton out for inventory or a hunch and not signed it out?


Dean pulled the box toward himself. Two different signatures on the EMF meter. Two skeletons, related by blood, left for only him to find. He was missing something, he knew that, but he couldn’t quite get the seams to join together. Maybe not enough sleep, maybe not distant enough to look at it all objectively, it didn’t matter.


The full skeleton was there, bright silver pins and joints holding it together from its time as a teaching tool. It didn’t seem damaged. Something about the way it was folded in there didn’t quite seem right, and Dean wondered who’d been messing with it, and why.


He took it with him all the same.


-|-


He put it down inside the front door and laid a ring of salt around it as a precaution and went looking for anything he had on instances of self-cursing. People threatened to come back and haunt people or to get revenge from the other side all the time. It was nothing new, but very rarely was anyone successful. Most serials were sociopathic if not downright psychotic and smarter than the average bear...but not the same kind of smart that average people used to get through a day intact.


All he could think of were two separate cases where someone had cursed a gravesite after the death of someone they hated, and a case where someone had cursed themselves successfully after having their heart broken. The idiot had messed himself up as well as the lives of anyone he got near until he’d finally killed himself. For all Dean knew, whatever was still left of him - his bones, mainly - were still cursed.


He dug around in his office, his journals, and online until about three, then sat back and rubbed his eyes. Genuine curses were pretty rare, since it took a hell of a lot of intent, time, energy, and knowledge. The chances of someone cursing the skeleton while it had been hanging in a classroom or storage room were just too damn small. And if the skeletons that had been left for him to look at were related to each other, were they also related to Kelley? And if so, what difference did it make? What was the message and who’d decided he was the one to get it?


He looked at his watch. He’d been at it for four hours.


It wasn’t like he didn’t have plenty of time, now.


Whatever hit him from behind did it hard enough that he never felt that long slide to the floor.


-|-


Sam was already awake when the alarm went off at six. He’d been awake off and on throughout the night, checking the girls, listening to Christo pace downstairs. It was like the dog knew Dean should have been there. No sense screwing up his sleep habits while they were under house arrest, so no harm leaving the alarm set. He rolled over and met Sarah’s eyes. She had been awake for awhile and had been staring at his back. Neither of them smiled, just reached to hold hands and silently convey the worry they each felt.


Like usual the clock radio was tuned to some morning talk show, and the top of the hour news cycle was beginning again.


...skeleton found at four this morning in Woodland, the third of its kind this week. Authorities say there are similarities to the first two and do not have enough information at this point to fully identify -


Their eyes had widened identically before they each rolled out of bed.


Sam ran downstairs for the phone, speed dialing Dean. Voicemail. He tried Dean’s land line at home; voicemail. He tried Dean’s office, and got the answering service. He left a message in all three places that Dean should call him now right now or sooner. Sarah flipped channels for local news, and a camera crew was standing in front of a group of service vehicles - coroner’s van, police - with Dean’s apartment building in the background.


They looked at each other again. It was one of those moments they’d always had, since just after they’d met, where neither had to say what they were thinking or feeling. It was one of too many moments where something was happening in the background and they had to center each other before one or both flew off the handle. Luckily, it still worked.


“Go,” she said. “We’re armed.”


It wasn’t that Sam was afraid to leave because a house full of women needed a man to protect them. It was that there would be one less pair of eyes and ears, one less pair of hands to guard against whatever might be out there.


Then Sarah kissed him, hard, and gave him a push as she headed for Mary’s room. Mary was sleeping in Leigh’s room to give Danielle a room of her own, and Sarah was in the unenviable position of waking Danielle to a world where Dean was not easily reachable for the first time since Sarah had met him.


-|-


Sam dialed and redialed Dean’s numbers the whole way to his apartment. By seven when the receptionist at the coroner’s office told him that Dean had not been in and had been listed on personal leave, Sam felt the twinge of he’s just off on a tangent descend straight to oh god what’s happened to him. 


When he reached Dean’s apartment, no one tried to stop him; the skeleton had been found behind a dumpster one building over. It would belong to a male roughly six feet in height and Dean had no damn dental records that would rule him out immediately; his teeth were goddamn perfect. He didn’t even want to think about the skeleton being Dean.


Dean’s truck was there, just like it should have been.


Sam took the stairs four at a time, then pounded on Dean’s door before pressing an ear to it. No sound of movement inside. He was glad the hallway was clear as he picked the lock and then slammed the door open with his gun already out.


There was no sign of a struggle. There was an empty, open white evidence box near the door. Dean was nowhere in the apartment. Sam went so far as to check the closets. No blood, nothing.


Sam stood in the middle of Dean’s livingroom and tried to think. On leave. Not by his own choice, Sam already knew that. Empty box by the door that Sam would bet was taken after Dean was put on leave. He just knew him too well.


On a whim, he dialed information to get the number for the Sacramento medical examiner’s office. Lauren Gresham’s voicemail gave out her pager number, so he paged her because he wanted everyone and their dog to know Dean was nowhere he was supposed to be, he wanted to talk to someone who could possibly shove him in the right direction, and she had given Dean a lead on this thing. He called Sarah in the meantime and was reassured that she, Dani, and Allie were carrying by then and the younger girls were all eating breakfast like nothing was happening.


When Lauren called him back, Sam wasted no time. “I need to know if you can look up an evidence tag.”


“Yeah,” she said. “All the evidence tags are on the state’s files and anybody can - “


“Tell me what this is,” he said, rattling off the numbers on the box.


“Give me a couple of minutes to -“


“Lauren,” Sam said, “I can’t find Dean. I can’t find him, and he was put on leave yesterday, and didn’t tell me. I last talked to him yesterday afternoon and he would never just forget to check in. He’s either so far into something that he can’t get out, or he’s - “


“Because they found another skeleton,” Lauren said. “And you’re worried it might be him. Hang on, Sam. Just hang on. I’ll be right back.”


Sam listened to the noise of an open line where people where wandering in hallways and talking about the news or their families or whatever they were working on, people who were not an instant from choking with terror because they couldn’t find someone they couldn’t reasonably go on without.


Okay. He would find out what had been in the box, and then he’d have the same lead Dean had, and he might be able to trace his steps.


He was finally retired and packed away again as evidence in his own murder case and it’s been quiet since.


Dean had wanted to look at Kelley’s bones, to see if they were cursed. But damn, a whole skeleton needed a bigger box than that, didn’t it? It did. There was no way -


“Sam,” Lauren said. “That tag belongs to a murder case from the 70's. Victim’s name was Dwight Kelley, and that piece of evidence is actually his skeleton. He was never interred after his death - his family donated him to science and he was put into service as a teaching skeleton. No one’s checked it out in years. Where’d you get the number? Where is it now?”


“I don’t know,” Sam said numbly, staring at the empty box.


Oh God oh God I don’t know.


-|-


Sometimes, consciousness was just a bitch he didn’t really need.


He was upright, but he was also naked, spread eagled and freezing, and his wrists and ankles were lashed to the goddamn wall with what had to be those damn plastic restraints cops sometimes used. They cut right into his skin, and he knew he’d run out of wrists before he managed to get the things loose. Not the first time he’d been left tied up and naked, but the least fun, hands down.


It was dark and damp in there, but he figured it must have been daylight outside by then. He couldn’t make out much; shelves against a wall, cinderblock at his back, a faint drip somewhere near the far side of the room. He coughed to see if he could get a sense of the size of the space, and the faint echo to his left and ahead of him told him he was in one sectioned off area of a larger space. Basement, somewhere, and who knew how far he was from Sacramento.


He could raise up on his toes just enough to cut off the circulation in his feet and get some feeling back in his hands.


The rest was a lot of waiting. And thinking.


-|-


By the time Sam got done, Lauren was as alarmed as she was capable of getting. Sam put the box in his own trunk because he didn’t want Dean to get the heat for having it once he was found.


Because he would be found.


Dean was not wandering around with a damn skeleton. It didn’t make sense. If Dean had meant to just burn the thing, he’d have taken it in the box. There was no reason for it to be out of the box. It wasn’t somewhere else in the apartment.


Worst of all, Sam had no idea what any of it meant; it didn’t give him any indication of where Dean might be. Not knowing what to do next felt like failure. Dean had been taken because he knew too much or had gone off because he thought he was protecting everybody else and Sam couldn’t follow the process, this time. This once.


He talked to Dean’s boss, to the cops, to anyone who would listen. Dean would not do this by choice. He played loose cannon every now and then but everybody knew this wasn’t like him.


They put an APB out for him. It was something - too small, not fast enough - but it was something. He went home and tried not to pace, tried to let Sarah comfort him, tried to put on a face for Danielle and Charlie.


When the idea first occurred to him later that afternoon, he held onto it like a lifeline. He didn’t know if it would work, he didn’t know if she still remembered, didn’t know if it was right to ask her to try. He knew in his heart that Dean was in trouble, knew there wasn’t much time, and he had to grasp at any straw he could.


He asked to take Charlie out for awhile, alone. He did not tell Sarah or Danielle why. It was a testament to how close a family they were and how much Danielle trusted him that no one asked him why or where or how long. The assumption would have been that Sam was going to break it to Charlie that Dean was missing. He wanted it that way.


He drove for a couple of miles before pulling over near the empty soccer field at the school his own girls went to. He motioned Charlie out of the car and offered her a hand to take, to walk with him.


“You know your dad should have been back by now,” he said.


She nodded, forehead wrinkling into a frown.


“You know he’d never go so long without talking to you,” Sam said.


She nodded again.


“I can’t find him,” Sam said gently. “He’s not where he’s supposed to be, and he’s not answering his phone. No one seems to know where he is.”


“Do you think he’s in trouble?” she said, staring up at him in open worry. Her voice was small, something Sam rarely heard from her.


Sam took in a breath and squeezed her hand. “I don’t know,” he said. “But if he is, we need to help him. You can help me find him.”


He turned to look at her and crouched down to her eye level. “Charlie,” he whispered, knowing he might be ruining something precious but knowing the damage of losing Dean was worse, “...find your dad.”


“How?” she said, eyes filling with tears. “Sam, I don’t know how.”


“You do,” he said. “You’ve always known, all your life. You just have to think about him, and you’ll know where to go.” He cupped her face. “You’ve just never thought about it as anything but perfectly normal.”


She searched his eyes frantically, finding the same terror on his face that she felt. This wasn’t fair or right, Sam should be able to fix things, Sam should just know what to do. Sam always knew what to do, he was Sam.


Sam,” she said, and it became a sob. “Please, I don’t know how!”


He held her by her arms, not letting her get any closer, not letting her burrow in and cry like she wanted to. “Don’t think,” Sam said, voice hoarse. “Don’t try. It’s just something you do, Yeah-Yeah.”


She burst into tears. “You’re scaring me,” she sobbed. “Sam I want my daddy!


He did shake her then, never feeling the tears on his own face, his desperation winning over his self loathing. “Then find him!” he said, not shouting but close, as close as he’d ever been with her or his own girls.


When she screamed and tried to struggle away from him, he yanked her in against his chest and held her. “Come on,” he said, reduced to whispering through tears. “Just let go, Charlie. Just think about how much you love him.”


He felt her stiffen, then suddenly quit struggling. She panted for air against his chest, then held on to his shirt instead of pushing away. He pressed his face to her hair and whispered, “Charlie, find daddy.”


After a long moment, she tilted her face back, eyes wild and wide, barely seeing him. “We have to go,” she said. “We have to go, Sam.”


-|-


When Dean came out of the doze he’d fallen into out of pain, cold and boredom, he couldn’t feel his hands and he wondered if restored circulation would help them, anymore. There was light in the room, finally, and that was important.


There was a metal-shaded utility light clamped to a nearby worktable, and it put out just enough light to show the figure standing about twenty feet away.


Dean knew what he was looking at right away; in the low light, it looked like someone who’d had a stroke, one side of the face slumping a little. He knew it wasn’t a living person, but what the hell any of it had to do with the damn bones was -


Shit.


“It wasn’t a curse,” he said aloud, shivering from cold. He purposely banged his head into the wall behind him. Of all the things he could imagine, this hadn’t been one of them. “It wasn’t even a curse, it’s you getting up and putting people’s bodies on. How long does one last, anyway?”


“Just long enough,” it said, keeping its distance for the moment. The words were slurred, dead skin barely moving under its control, a dry tongue roughly animated. It was wheezing; Dean figured it was leaking air in several places, unable to reseal the chest cavity when it folded the body around bones it had never been made for.


“So how do you do it, anyway?” Dean said. “Keep the skeleton intact, and not wreck the whole body. That’s a nice party trick.”


“I’ll show you,” it slurred. When it got closer Dean realized he’d been face to gaping maw or whatever with so many things, and this one wasn’t the ugliest, but he wanted to cringe. When it moved, the entire body moved independently and slightly out of synch with the skeleton. And Jesus, the smell. It fumbled a little at the worktable, trying to pick something up with fingertips that likely had no feeling, and it behaved as if it was wearing several layers of heavy gloves. Whatever it was trying for caught the light as it finally moved it off the edge of the table.


It was a scalpel. Dean realized then what he was in for. It was going to put him on.


I will not scream, he thought. I will not scream and I will not beg.  


The blade was so sharp that the first slice, just under his right collarbone and angled down toward his sternum, was no more than a sting. He felt the warmth of blood spilling free and the steady patter of it hitting the floor. He tried to work a wrist loose again.


“Your brother will leave the house sooner or later, and leave behind so many pretty, pretty girls,” it said.


Good. It was underestimating his family.


“When I walk in,” Kelley said, “They won’t realize in time that it isn‘t you.”


“If I have to do it as a ghost, I’m still gonna get you, you fucker,” Dean said.


When the blade touched the skin under his left collarbone, Dean recognized the pattern and realized it was actually starting a Y incision. It was going to autopsy him alive before taking him off his own bones. Less painful so far than when the fire demon had pinned him so many years earlier, but just as much blood.


So much blood.


“You need a breath mint, Dwayne,” Dean said, trying to keep the exhaustion out of his voice. “Had your teeth checked, lately? Outside of a box, I mean.”


There was nothing to say to it that made any difference. He was already dying, he had minutes left at most with the amount of blood he was losing, and the best he could do was close his eyes and let other lives flash before them. Not his own. Lives he adored beyond comprehension, faces and voices and touches, all left behind. Sam would figure it all out and it would be okay, somehow. It wasn’t so bad if he thought of it that way; it wasn’t so hard to go.


It slapped him across the face, hard. “C’mon, Dean,” it said. “I want you awake when I pull your skeleton right out of the back of you. The last guy? Stayed alive about twenty seconds after that, just a loose bag of blood and guts. You should have seen the look on what was left of his face. Haven’t you always wondered what it was like, to be an invertebrate?”


Dean felt it begin to bisect the skin just under the end of his sternum, the blade biting down. He felt a pulling that started in his bones, and he realized with what was left of his consciousness that it hadn’t been kidding, it was tapped into something that allowed it to pull an intact skeletal structure loose and leave behind enough body to be worn like any suit.


The last warmth he was ever going to know was his own blood as it ran down his body and onto the floor.


The sensation stopped and the sound of an impact was followed by the bright sound of metal clattering along the cement. At first Dean thought the thing had simply dropped the blade, the dumb bastard, but when he opened his eyes again with an effort it was to the sight of it backing away from him. A chunk was missing from its left arm and the wound was bloodless.


Out of the darkness from Dean’s right came Sam. With an axe.


Dean felt his vision blur and didn’t believe it was Sam anyway, not even when Sam advanced and the creature backed away with a hissing sound. These were dreams of the dying - rescue did not come in the nick of time in the shape of his brother, not even in his world.


It retreated to the shadows, and Sam switched hands with the axe.


When it made a dash for the back, Sam went right after it, his attention and rage momentarily fixed on destruction and nothing else. He knew it wouldn’t get far, not shambling the way it was, and he wanted to take it apart. He’d come in the front without being heard and seen it slap Dean, saw the blood, and his synapses were firing on only one cylinder.


It shuffled out into an unlit back hallway, and Sam went right after it into the dark, shoulder colliding with the wall. When he realized that he couldn’t see or hear it and that he was giving it an opening to ambush him, he paused. As badly as he wanted to make kindling of the thing, Dean was bleeding to death behind him. That quickly, he snapped back to himself. It wasn’t a choice.


He wasn’t going to die or let Dean die in an old warehouse by the Sacramento river, not two miles from his own house.


He ran back through with the axe still at the ready in his left hand, then balanced the head of it on the floor right next to Dean’s feet as he stripped his own shirt off and used it to try and staunch the flow of blood. “Dean,” he said.

 

Dean’s head had fallen forward and his eyes had begun to roll back in his head. Sam cast around for the blade on the floor, intent on slicing the plastic wrist restraints. “C’mon, Dean,” he said. “Now’s one of those times when I really need you to make a joke about how this isn’t the first time you’ve been found tied up and naked.”


There was no answer.


The blade was so sharp that it sliced through the restraints with barely any pressure. Sam caught Dean against him and then struggled not to slip in his brother’s blood.


-|-


Charlie huddled under the dash on the passenger side like Sam had told her when he locked her in. Sam had always asked her to do things rather than ordering her like her father did, and not obeying Sam would be wrong. He had ordered her this time, and he was as scared as she was.


She could feel her father close by.


If her father was here, and Sam had gone to get them, why weren’t they back yet?


Sam had ordered her to hide; so, she would hide.


Except for just one look. One quick look, one very quick instant of raising her head just high enough so she could catch a glimpse out the window. She wanted to see them coming -


There was someone out there, walking parallel to the car like he was hurt. She knew immediately it wasn’t her Sam or her dad, and she ducked her head back down, heart pounding. He hadn’t seen her. No way he’d seen her, she’d only looked for a second, and -


When the shadow fell across the passenger side of the car, and there was no demand of any kind that she open the door. When she glanced up, she understood.


It looked like a person but even in the mostly dark she knew right away that it wasn’t, that it was something so badwrong that all it did was harm.


She didn’t scream. She knew the doors were locked but if it wanted to it would get in anyway, and Sam and her father were out there but might not be coming right away.


It leaned in closer against the side of the car, looking in at her. And it grinned.


Charlie huddled further under the dash and covered her ears, trying not to react, but it was so badwrong that she couldn’t help it.


-|-


The old place was full of locks and switches, and Sam heard the doors furthest away go first. The noise moved toward him and Dean in a wave, and he knew.


Charlie.


He got Dean over his shoulder, a fresh wave of adrenaline making it that much easier, and grabbed the axe as he headed out. The goddamn thing had gone out the back somewhere and if Charlie panicked, she might unlock the car. He had to get back to the car.


-|-


Charlie scrambled for the master lock, knowing she’d unlocked the doors but not how. She hit it just as the thing scrabbled at the door handle, causing it to curse in a mushy sounding litany of anger. She went for the phone Sam had left in the car, fingers fumbling over the center console, trying not to cry as she flipped it open without looking. She couldn’t stop staring at the thing at the window, even when it drew a hand back and slammed it into the glass, which didn’t give - but the impact rocked the minivan.


The numbers and screen lit up in the dark car but she couldn’t get her fingers to work and the police would never get there in time anyway...


When the window gave and showered her with safety glass, she still didn’t scream, but the world behind her tightly closed eyes went white when dead fingers made a grab for her hair. The rest of the windows blew outward and she felt as well as heard it when the thing stumbled away from the car with a wet thud. There was the scraping of grave, footsteps retreating fast, a phlegmy growling noise. When it was silent again, she lifted her head.


She was going to be in trouble over the windows, she just knew it.


“Charlie!”


She popped her head up in time to see Sam coming toward her across the parking lot with her father over his shoulder, and she went for the door.


“Stay in the car!” Sam yelled. His voice was frightened and relieved at the same time, like he knew what had happened. “Unlock the doors, sweetie.”


She did as she was told. “What’s wrong with daddy?”


“He’s gonna be okay,” Sam said. “Open the back door, okay?”


She did that too, watching Sam lay her father across the backseat and grab a blanket off the back of one seat to cover him. Sam was missing his shirt and there was so much blood.


Hearing her take in a breath that sounded like it might come back out in something a nine year old girl had every right to emit, Sam said, “You’re a big girl now, Charlie. We need you to be a big girl right now. I need you to stay back here with your dad.” When she scrambled over the seats, he said, “Press the shirt to his chest as hard as you can, okay? Don’t let go.”


He hated it that her face was suddenly all business, that she was where she was and might end up being the only thing keeping Dean alive until he got them to a hospital. Dean could die right there in the back seat in front of his little girl, and neither Charlie or Sam would ever get over it.


He didn’t know what else to do.


It wasn’t the first time he’d done it, but it was no easy trick navigating even light traffic at top speed without getting pulled over or sending Charlie tumbling. He considered himself lucky that he even remembered to put the minivan into gear outside the UC Davis med center ER entrance before he stormed in there covered in blood, shouting for help with Dean in his arms.


He had to convince them that Charlie was not physically hurt even though she too was covered in blood by then, her hands and forearms and the knees of her jeans soaked through where Dean had bled onto the seat.


Charlie was pliant as a ragdoll when he picked her up and turned her so she couldn’t watch the staff take Dean away. She rested her head in the crook of his neck, shocked to silence, trembling sporadically.


Going into shock.


Then again, so was Sam.


He asked for a blanket for her, and they brought him a freshly warmed one. He told the story at least three times to ER staff and the first cop from Sacramento PD, and everyone he talked to knew Dean at least in passing.


So many people, more all the time.


The story he told was abbreviated, to put it mildly. He said he’d received an anonymous call at home.


He could not let go of Charlie.


When he dialed home to break the news, no one answered.


-|-


They listened to the phone ring and didn’t move for it.


Allie, Sarah and Danielle were in the livingroom, standing close together, watching all the corners, weapons lowered for the moment but trained loosely on one general area - the front door. Allie and Danielle had handguns and Sarah had one of the rifles Sam kept in his gun cabinet upstairs. Mary and Leigh had locked themselves in the upstairs bathroom by order.


Christo was running from one end of the house to the other, growling so hard that he was choking.


They’d been finishing dinner when the dog had begun to bark at the front door. Within seconds, the barking had become a terrified, enraged roar. In all the time they’d had Christo, he’d never come close to making any sound even remotely like it, and Sarah immediately took that for what it was. Mary and Leigh had been directed upstairs, and guns were leveled at the door when the knob was rattled from the outside.


When Christo attacked the door, spit flying, and then lost control of his bladder, Sarah shouted for him to get down, and he’d paced since, hackles raised, teeth bared.


Not even Allie blinked when someone looked in at them through the front windows. Even in the darkness outside they all knew it wasn’t a person. It was only pretending, a flash of pale face and dead eyes staring at them unblinking, not needing to blink, shapeless dark clothes hiding just how uneven the body was. It would pass under the quick glance of anyone who didn’t want to see what they couldn’t believe.


It knew how to grin, though.


It disappeared around the side of the house.


“What the....hell...was that,” Danielle whispered.


“Something pretty damn brazen,” Sarah said. “Oh, shit, the back door.”


She was partway through the kitchen when she heard uneven steps pounding across the back deck. She couldn’t remember locking it - it was second nature to keep the doors locked even in the middle of the day, even when everyone was home. When she reached the door and found it locked, there was little relief in it; the lopsided face at the window above the door was right there, nothing but a thickness of glass between them, and then not even that when it used its head to shatter the glass.


Sarah yelped and ducked, tried to bring her gun up, and heard the phone ringing again as the thing got a handful of her hair. She heard Allie scream for her to get down as whatever it was yanked her back against the door with enough violence to nearly knock her out.


She was too stunned to tell where the first shot had come from; the noise was so loud in the confines of the kitchen that she dropped her gun in shock. By the second shot, it didn’t matter where it was coming from. She was trying to yank her hair out of a hand that was so waxy and cold that she retched with revulsion. By the third shot she heard something tear, and some of the skin of that hand came off in her hands as she rolled away in the glass from the window.


There were two more shots before she heard and felt steps pounding back across the deck, away from the door. She used that time to get her gun back and fling a limp, grayish lump of dead skin to the floor. Dizzy from the blow, she looked up to find Danielle in the kitchen doorway, gun raised, open shock on her face. Allie stood directly across from the back door, gun still extended in both hands, looking contained. She’d put five shots into the thing without hesitation.


“Mom?” Allie said without taking her eyes off the door.


“I’m okay,” Sarah said, rising, brushing glass off herself.


Above the phone ringing and Christo losing his mind near the front door again was the piercing, awful sound of Mary screaming upstairs.


Danielle ran for the stairs.


“We’re getting out of here,” Sarah said. Then she reached out to pick up the phone. “We’re here.”


“Oh, God,” Sam said breathlessly, then was silent.


He was trying not to cry with relief; she could hear it. An unanswered phone could be so awful.


He would not have been calling just to check in; she knew that, knew him. “Where are you,” she said, surprising even herself with how steady her voice was.


“UC Davis,” Sam said. “We found him. We found Dean. Get out of the house as fast as you can, there’s something - “


“Something was already here,” Sarah said. “We’re all okay, and it’s gone for now. We’re coming. Tell me you’re all okay.”


“Me and Charlie are okay,” Sam said with hesitation, and she couldn’t tell whether it was worry over what she’d just told him or whether he was trying to tell her that Dean -


“Get out of the house, Sarah,” Sam said. “If we’re all together, we’ll be okay.”


-|-


One of the nurses tried again to gently take Charlie to check her over. Sam said no. He had to hold on. She would be okay, Dean would be okay, if he just held on.


-|-


It was not waiting for them in the garage, or in the driveway when they pulled out. Sarah was almost disappointed. She would have enjoyed running it down.


It was a mercifully short trip. They left the guns in the car because they knew they had to. The five of them walked with hands linked out of a mutual need to touch.


When they got into the ER, it was Sarah that saw them first, and it shoved the earlier attack to the side for just a moment.


Sam had told her that he and Charlie were okay, but the amount of blood on them both said otherwise. They were just inside one of the check-in cubicles, partially sequestered from everyone else, and Sarah realized how many volumes that spoke. Sam had blood down the front of him, in his hair and across his face, on his hands and forearms. His eyes were closed and he had Charlie straddled across his lap, arms wrapped around her. Her small feet dangling and too still. She had blood on her arms and knees and one thumb in her mouth. Her eyes were open but looking at nothing, and Sam was rocking her like he didn’t even realize he was doing it.


Charlie had not sucked her thumb since the age of four.


Sarah immediately steered Allie, Mary and Leigh away. “Find something to distract your sisters,” she said to Allie. “Go.”


“But...dad, and - “


“Allison,” Sarah said, “Go. This is much worse than I thought, and I need you now as much as I needed you to save me from that thing at the door.”


Slightly mollified, Allie nodded and took Mary and Leigh’s hands.


Danielle was already staring at Sam and Charlie, eyes wide, moving toward them but knowing enough not to rush over and grab Charlie away. She still surprised Sarah occasionally with how much she really could understand, sometimes, even to the point of resisting a parental instinct.


Danielle knelt to Sam’s left while Sarah put a hand in his hair and waited for him to open his eyes.


“Sam,” Danielle said, “...can I have her, please?”


Sam gave Charlie over, and Charlie closed her eyes without relinquishing her thumb. Sarah realized that Danielle was probably already convinced that Dean was dead, because no one bled enough to soak the knees of their little girl’s jeans and lived.


Sam put his hands on his knees and looked disoriented for a moment, then said, “You already told me you’re all okay,” he said, eyes widening in panic, “But your face...”


Sarah hadn’t bothered to look to see if she had any bruises from being slammed against the door. “It’s okay,” she said. “We’re all okay. I don’t want the girls to see you until you’re cleaned up.”


“He’s alive,” Sam blurted suddenly.


Danielle closed her eyes and turned her face into Charlie’s hair.


Sarah cupped his face and he leaned into it. He didn’t want to touch her with the amount of blood he had on his hands, and she understood that too.


-|-


He couldn’t seem to quite get all the blood off. It wouldn’t all come out of his cuticles or from under his nails. He was pretty sure he wasn’t really seeing it in the creases of his fingers so he finally stopped scrubbing before he added his own blood to the mix.


-|-


It was Danielle who ran out with Charlie and picked up a change of clothes for her and Sam. No one would be going home for awhile unless they all went together. They’d all be in the same hotel room together if possible, because they would not split up.


-|-


Dean had lost enough blood to kill him. But he was not dead. And he would not be.


-|-


By morning, Sam moved them all to a nearby hotel and had heard the entire story. He and Allie shared a stare that only he and Dean had shared before, a hunter’s stare, and they nodded at each other because there was nothing that needed to be said.


His phone rang nonstop until he shut it off because everybody wanted to know how Dean was, and Sam couldn’t handle talking about it anymore. He updated his voicemail message again instead.


He thought about the empty box in the back of his blood-soaked minivan. He knew he needed to get the rest of the story from Dean before he acted, but he was piecing things together now that he had a little distance from what he’d seen. He did not share any of it with Sarah or Danielle. The damn thing had made a beeline for his house as soon as Charlie had driven it off. It was smart and fast and passed for human when it felt like it. But it was already dead.


He would almost have been grateful for a skinwalker.


Dean had things in his ‘public’ office that he would not keep in his apartment because Charlie set foot in the door every other week. Things he and Sam had argued over, that would handle something like this. Know thy enemy, Sam, Dean had said. Can’t counteract shit without knowing about it.


The thing had tried to kill Sam’s entire family and had come too close to succeeding, and it didn’t matter what had set it off. It didn’t matter what they had to do; they would trap it and kill it. He was not going to worry about the rules this time, or what any of it made him.


Charlie didn’t speak even when spoken to, but she did nod and shake her head. She was dealing in her own way, and was not alone. She preferred to stay wherever Sam was, and Danielle tried not to take it personally that she was not her daughter’s main source of comfort right then.


-|-


When Dean awoke nearly twenty four hours after Sam had found him, Sarah was with him. They had taken turns sitting with him, including Allie, making certain he didn’t wake alone. She was smoothing his hair and already telling him that everybody was okay and close by before he was even fully lucid. She repeated it until his eyes cleared.


“Somebody clocked you, though,” he said finally, hoarse. He didn’t even try and move, because he could feel every inch of where he’d been laid bare to bone. “Sam get drunk and smack you around?”


She smiled at him and went back to smoothing his hair. He was asking her for the whole story and it was neither the place or time for all of it.


She told him how he had been found because she did not want Sam to be stuck with the admission. She had known Dean would be angry, and she was right. She stuck to the facts as she knew them and didn’t attempt to interject her own opinion. It wouldn’t make any difference. Dean heard Charlie knew how to find you and not much else.


By the time she left, he was asleep again but with a furrow between his brows.


-|-


By the next morning they were on the news, and Sam had a family-only rule instated after the cops had talked to Dean because he wasn’t sure how damn good the thing was at stitching a body back together and walking the hallways. The girls were tired of being sequestered but didn’t argue.


The adults were always armed.


Sam felt Dean’s eyes on him as soon as he entered his room. He’d expected it, but it didn’t have any less of an impact. Deserving it didn’t make it any easier. So he took it and didn’t return it, standing against the wall. Coming closer would seem too familiar yet, like he was asking for forgiveness, and he wouldn’t do it.


Dean lay still but he looked like he might swing his feet to the floor at any moment. Nostrils flared, eyes wide and unblinking, he stared at Sam with such anger that Sam could only nod.


“Sam,” Dean said softly, voice underscored with a growl of rage, “I love you. But when I get out of here, I’m going to fuck you up.”


Sam nodded.


“You brought my little girl near that thing,” Dean said. “Losing me isn’t worth the risk of losing her.”


Sam wanted to say why don’t you ask her and see if she agrees but he knew better, and it wasn’t fair anyway. He didn’t nod or do anything but let Dean know he was heard.


“Hands down, the dumbest fuckin’ thing you’ve ever done. Now get back out of here before I change my mind and kick your ass today.”


“Danielle is here,” Sam said.


Dean’s anger scaled down a few notches. “She okay?”


“No,” Sam said, then held a hand up when Dean’s eyes went wide with emotion again. “Not like that. She’s never almost lost you before. Divorce you, yeah, but not lose you. She’s not used to it like I am.”


That last hit home a little, and Sam knew it even if Dean refused to do so much as blink.


“She knows Charlie was there, but she doesn’t know about Charlie,” Sam said, softer. “And no one’s told you yet because you need to goddamn heal, but that thing went straight to my house while you were bleeding to death in the backseat and tried to kill our whole family. So you keep all that in mind when you see her, and then try and be as pissed off as you want, because then you’ll get your ass out of here faster and help me find that fuckin’ thing and kill it.”


Dean looked like he might have been mulling that over, but he was still trying to hold onto his anger at Sam so it translated to a blank stare.


Sam shrugged and walked away. He left the door open behind him and nodded to Danielle when he looked up and saw her standing against the wall a good twenty feet down the hallway. He didn’t dare try and comfort her; it seemed best if she gave Dean both barrels of the fear and confusion he could see in her face. She had been far too quiet the last couple of days, not sharing a damn thing with them, and he knew she’d had some idea of a perfect life ruined in a short amount of time. Whatever she’d thought she was getting by trying to distance herself from them six years earlier had not come to pass. Whatever sheltering Dean had tried to do when they were married was long gone. Whatever facade she’d been trying to maintain for so long had shattered.


“Okay?” he said, pausing several feet away.


“Yeah,” she said, but it was obvious she was flying apart. Sam didn’t mean to feel any satisfaction over it - it had nothing to do with Danielle. It was about how sometimes people were so stubborn that it took a lot of shaking to get them to wake up.


He smiled at her a little and said, “We’ll be in the waiting room, okay?”


She nodded and then just moved, rushing toward the door to Dean’s room like she might lose the nerve without momentum.


Sam walked away in the opposite direction, long strides eating up the space, not wanting to hear anything. He was going to run home and make sure Christo was okay.


Danielle ducked in the door without touching it, then closed it behind with a finality that made Dean look up. There was an instant where they were glad to see each other, where there might have been a touch of greeting in Dean’s eyes or a bit of warmth in Danielle’s. Stubbornness won.


“You dumb son of a bitch,” she said. “You dumb cowboy asshole.”


“Nice to see you as always, sweetheart,” Dean shot back, slumping into his pillows to look at the ceiling.


“You scared the hell out of Charlie,” she said.


Dean snorted. “Oh, babe, you don’t know the half of that. And next time something decides to grab me, I’ll try and warn you first. God forbid I should fuck up your schedule.”


“You don’t learn,” she said. “You don’t change. You always think you can handle anything - “


“Do you not have any idea what really just happened?” Dean said, cutting her off. “You don’t get to apply your safe, sane rules to everything. There’s stuff out there that can’t be stopped by locks or alarms, or even guns. You don’t get to keep pretending they don’t exist.”


You don’t get to take off and save everybody,” she said.


“You don’t get to love people only when it’s convenient for you,” Dean said softly. “Sorry about that, you crazy bitch.”


Danielle burst into tears.


Dean lifted his head with an effort and stared at her in shock. “Hey, hey - “


She came to him, hands patting along the edge of the bed until his hands could reach her but not pull her in, not with so many stitches barely keeping things together. He wasn’t prepared for the kiss he got, a memory six years old to him, to them, an old pattern. They hadn’t been on kissing terms for a long damn time but he wasn’t about to turn it down.


When she came up for air, he said, “Nice bedside manner, Dr. Winchester.”


She sat on the edge of the bed and swiped at her face impatiently. “Shut up.”


“It’s fine as long as I’m not the one leaving you, right?” he said.


Instead of stalking out or snapping at him, the caustic observation only seemed to make her more miserable. She pressed one hand to her forehead and held her breath, trying not to sob.


“Dani,” he said finally, “None of this is new.”


“You stayed out of stuff,” she said. “After the thing in the lab...it’s never been much of anything.”


Dean waited and reflected again that she was pretty good at denial. That had always worked in his favor; he’d never wanted questions about everything he and Sam had killed, didn’t want her really knowing what all was out there. She’d always said she understood what they did, but she’d never embraced it like Sarah had. And he and Sam had not been involved in much since the kids had come along. He was fairly sure he already knew what point she was trying to make but the crying had thrown him off so he refrained from finishing her sentences.


She glanced at him, eyes beginning to redden. “You never really told me...we never really talked about...how real some of this could be. I never wanted to know. It was easier thinking you just...that it was an occasional ghost. Sam told me some of the other things.”


“Did he,” Dean said. Sam was just racking up points.


“Demons and ghosts, I understand,” she said. “Everybody does. And you knew that, so that’s as far as we ever got. None of the rest of this makes any sense. How are we supposed to keep out the things that don’t make sense?”


“They don’t make sense only if you don’t know what it is,” Dean said softly. They were holding hands, how the hell had that happened? “Once you figure out what it is, there’s a way to kill it. It’s that easy.”


“So what was this?” Dani said, looking away again.


“Now that I’ve seen it, all I have to do is find out where it’s hiding,” Dean said. “And in the meantime, everybody stays together. It could have been anybody that got this thing’s attention. It just happened to be me, and I’m the worst choice it’s ever made.”


“You’ve always done that,” she said, squeezing his hand. “You sort of answer, but you don’t. I don’t really ask and you don’t really answer.”


“It’s a body snatcher,” Dean said bluntly. “There’s a pissed off skeleton wandering around peeling people right off their own bones and wearing them. It was gonna put me on like any suit and come knock on the door.”


“I’d have known,” Dani said. “I’d have known it wasn’t you.”


“I know,” Dean said. “That was all I had left, knowing that my family was too damn smart to fall for it.” He smiled when she looked at him, even though the look she was giving him was as close to devastation as she ever got.


-|-


When he awoke again, it was to his daughter crawling in beside him. She snuggled into the crook of his arm, tears rolling down her face, careful to avoid touching his chest. He would have given anything to just wrap his arms around her but had to make do with one hand in her hair, petting.


“I’m so sorry, baby,” he said. “I know it’s been hard. You’ve been very brave.”


“I missed you,” she said, gulping back tears.


“I missed you too. But you found me.”


She nodded against his arm. “I found you.”


They were silent for a long moment, just relieved to see each other.


“Please don’t be mad at Sam,” she said. “Please. I knew I could find you. Me and Sam, we need you more than anybody, ever.”


“I can’t talk about it right now,” Dean said. His tone was forbidding, but there was no anger in it. He knew she’d been through something he could never fix for her. He wasn’t good at trying to work through fears he couldn’t see and kill, but he’d try, for her. Just not yet. He pushed his fingers into her hair, watching the light play in her eyes. “It’s okay, Pook,” he said. “It’ll be okay.”


“You don’t understand,” she said. “It was my fault. I tried to stay down and keep quiet, like Sam said, but I couldn’t. When it came to the window I couldn’t leave it alone.”


Dean narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”


“It never would have known I was there if I hadn’t gotten up to look,” she whispered. “I disobeyed Sam, and that was why it saw me. It came to the car and tried to get in, so I hit it. I hit it hard, with my mind. I couldn’t help it. But I’m glad I hurt it.”


Dean tried to wrap his mind around what she was telling him. He’d been running under the already unbearable understanding that Charlie had even been out there at all, and now she was telling him that the thing had tried to break into the car to get her. Never mind that she was revealing that she was capable of more than locking and unlocking doors.


“It’s not your fault,” he said finally. “You found me, didn’t you? Everything else, we’ll figure out later. I don’t want you to worry.”


“But I do,” she whispered. She sat up and leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “Don’t be mad at Sam. He’s your kid too, like me.”


He closed his eyes. Sometimes, when she was like this, he realized how in over his head he was, trying to be a father.


“I love you,” he said. “I love Sam. Nothing’ll change that. But if I’m mad, it’s between me and Sam. You can’t plead on his behalf, anymore than he can plead on yours. Don’t worry about it. End of discussion.”


She sighed and wiped her eyes, then laid down next to him again. “I love you too, daddy,” she whispered.


Dean held her in against him as close as he could get her.


-|-


The next day, he checked himself out against the suggestion of pretty much everybody on staff. The possibility of infection, weakened immune response, relapse, blah blah blah. He was bored out of his mind and had something to kill. Another skeleton had been found; the thing had switched faces again while Dean had been in the hospital.


Dean had described a face to cops and colleagues that was no longer in play. It didn’t matter. It wouldn’t be any of them who found the thing.


It was Sam who came to get him, not bothering to argue with him over whether he should have been up and around. He wasn’t going to argue with him over anything. They barely spoke on the way to Dean’s apartment. Dean played his messages - most were from coworkers, several from other FA’s, a bizarre number from people he either hadn’t heard from in a while or had worked with on prior cases.


“You didn’t call Dad,” Dean said.


“No,” Sam said. “He didn’t used to panic. Now one of us gets hurt, he panics.”


Dean made a noncommittal sound that Sam knew was unwilling agreement. “Grandkids mess a guy up,” he said.


Somewhere in the middle was another message from Lauren. The cousins had been ID’d by dental records and they’d lived miles apart, so to Dean that meant Kelley had just happened to pick similar guys - he hadn’t purposely gone after a certain family. One had recently moved to be closer to family. Knowing he’d want to know the genetic history as a matter of course, she added that they were 1/4th Lakhota Sioux.


Dean flipped his phone closed and thought about tribes and dwindling bloodlines and what that could potentially mean to a spiritual caretaker. There was more than one kind, and now he had an idea which one they were dealing with. If it hadn’t been for what Sam had felt after the second skeleton, Dean would still have been thinking Kelley had dumped the bones at his home and office.


Sam brought the empty evidence box in, and they stared at each other over it in Dean’s home office. Dean sat wearily and finally said, “Bet he hasn’t even tried finding somewhere else to hide.”


“Box is the only home he knows,” Sam said. “Now that his cover’s blown, he might not come back to it.”


“He will,” Dean said. “We put it back with a few adjustments, I’ll bet that creature of habit gets right back in.”


“You up to this?” Sam said, hands tucked in his pockets to keep them still. “I can handle it.”


“No, business first. I can eat bon-bons and watch soaps for weeks after this is done,” Dean said, but there was no smirk to go with it. He looked gray to Sam, older than Sam had thought he could imagine. “I’ve got plenty of time. I’m on leave.”


“Nguyen’s been trying to get hold of you,” Sam said. “Since I wouldn’t let anybody see you but us. You gonna get back to him?”


“When I get a minute,” Dean said, still staring into the box.


“He was right to put you on leave,” Sam said.


“Yeah,” Dean said. “But I don’t have to like it. I don’t want him asking what’s going on. This’ll never be solved ‘officially’ and I can’t even hint to anybody that they can stop wasting their time on it once all those guys are ID’d.” He rubbed a hand over his face. All those guys. There’d be another if they didn’t hurry.


“It wasn’t Kelley dumping those skeletons,” Sam said. “But somebody wanted you to know about the ones that were related to each other, people you didn’t even know. And when it did that, maybe trying to help....it brought you to Kelley’s attention.”


Dean nodded, thinking again about two different EMF signatures on those bones, and family ties, and desperation. “They’re not usually so aware of the physical world, beyond just moving bones,” he said.


“Who?”


“Magadalenas,” Dean said. “They usually just try and move bones to a proper gravesite or they just drop them all over to get attention when something’s been messed up. I can’t believe there wasn’t one after that flood in Texas washed out a cemetery three years ago.” He rubbed his face again. That had been a mess. Floating caskets, some too deteriorated or too old to have a serial number to match to a corpse; rotted clothing and casket linings, too many bodies to count. He almost would have been happy to see a magadalena. The sorting might have gone faster. Some bodies had washed up to four miles downstream, ending up in yards and homes and... “They don’t pick one guy out for help. They don’t need help.”


Sam stared at him for a moment, then sat down in the other chair and leaned back. “Unless she couldn’t ignore you,” he said.


Dean squinted at him.


“We’ve been running into the paranormal our whole lives,” Sam said. “There’s no way we haven’t been taking a little along with us every time we’ve been hit, splattered, bitten or run over by it.”


Dean quirked an eyebrow. He didn’t want to agree, and he really didn’t want to add and I’ll bet some of the stuff going on with our girls isn’t totally genetic then either, so he said, “Yeah, whatever. Let’s go do a little shopping and get this bitch done.”


He did not bat Sam’s hand away when Sam reached to help him up.


Sam did not bat an eye at the list of stuff they needed to get this bitch done even though he had just explained how they took something away with them every time. Black candles and myrrh and a variety of things that would not be as easy to get were a small price to pay to trap the damn thing. Black magic with good intentions was still black magic but Sam was willing to take a mark on his soul for this one, if he had to.


Lesser people would not have been able to decipher or attempt the level of snaring they were doing. It would work because of who they were and where they’d been. It would work because they were attached to each other in ways they only barely understood.


The blood used would be his own because really Dean had already given enough.


-|-


It was Sam who broke in that night and put the empty box back where it belonged with its much changed and re-papered bottom. It was Dean who chose a glass paperweight that Sarah had given him for his desk as a remote sensor for the trap, his way of involving her without letting her anywhere near.  


It was Dean who heard the glass paperweight crack when the spell sealed at twenty after three that next morning. His chest burned when he rolled over and found Sam staring at him in the dark.


They woke Sarah and Dani to tell them they’d be back soon and that it was safe to go home if they wanted to. They refused to say anything more than all we have to do now is burn him, it’s all over. It wasn’t the first time either woman had had to go by trust when the brothers got closemouthed about something they were hunting. If it had still been dangerous, though, under no circumstance would they have used the word safe or said it was fine to go home.

 

After that, they were utterly silent. It was neither companionable or antagonistic. It was the same silence they used before a hunt they weren’t certain about, one they had to center themselves for. There had been far too much emotion involved in the whole thing, and they couldn’t afford any more of it until it was over.


They had rarely in their lives been able to speak to each other without getting emotional, one way or another.


It was Sam who drove, Sam who broke into the Redding courthouse evidence lockup again, and Sam who grabbed the now-full box without looking inside. Just holding the weight of it in his hands was all he could deal with.


They took it all the way out to the Shooting House outside Placerville, the abandoned house with the clearing where Dean and Sam had taught each girl to shoot. It was well enough out of the way to avoid curious eyes.


They didn’t sit in the dark in the car and weigh the moment. Sam got out and left his door open, and Dean did the same with greater care while Sam got the box out of the minivan as fast as possible. He had had the windows replaced and cleaned the back the best he could for now, and left the seats covered until he could have them removed. At least they couldn’t smell the blood, but Sam knew it was still there. Dean grabbed the lighter fluid and the same axe Sam had used to take a chunk out of Kelley a couple of days earlier out of the back and started gathering brush and deadwood into a loose pile. It wasn’t good enough to just burn the box. They had to make sure this was a full incineration, the ashes scattered, the destruction total.


Dean got a good fire started and went off for more fuel, not watching as Sam flipped the lid off the box.


The skeleton was folded neatly into a position that would have been virtually impossible for any living person, but not for something with loosely pinned joints. The skull faced upward with the jaw slightly parted, and to Sam it looked like a mocking grin.


There were still traces of the last body clinging to the bones.


There was a hole in the skull that had shattered the left cheekbone; Allie’s first shot. If he looked closer he would see chunks missing from the shoulderblades and ribs, solid body shots that his eldest daughter had calmly taken.


He imagined those gleaming, folded fingerbones grabbing for Sarah, grabbing for Charlie, slicing into Dean.


The bones didn’t give like wood; they’d been sealed with a near-plastic solvent, so it sounded high and sharp when Sam took the axe to the skull first. He used all his strength, not caring that the impact with the ground beneath on the downswing was going to jar his shoulders and neck badly enough to make it hard to move for days afterward. He switched to the back of the head of the axe to use blunt force on the resulting pieces of the skull, shattering it to finer pieces before using the blade on the long bones. He was swinging way too hard and didn’t care. There wasn’t enough force in the world he could wield on those bones to satisfy a rage as hollow as his. It wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t punishment enough. Kelley didn’t feel the blows.


Dean stood and watched from several yards away, worried and understanding and a little unsettled.


When parts of the ribs startled flying and Sam began making pained, desperate-sounding noises for air, Dean came around the other side of the fire and said, “Sam. C’mon, good enough.”


Sam ignored him. The box was no longer recognizable as a box, and even Dean would have had to spend days trying to reassemble what was left of the skeleton.


“Sammy,” Dean said louder, “Just burn it.”


When he stepped up and grabbed the wooden handle at the very top of a downswing, halting Sam’s progress, the last thing he expected Sam to do was grab him with his free hand and shove him to the facing side of the house and slam him against it. For once he was glad it was too dark to see Sam’s face, and he was amazed at the amount of pain the muscles in the front could feel from an impact to the back.


They were both still holding the axe, Dean’s hand just above Sam’s. Sam wrenched it loose and flung it end over end into the dark before he jammed a none-too gentle knee into Dean’s crotch, breath coming hard and fast as he rested his forehead against the wood and his face in the crook of Dean’s neck.


Dean didn’t even attempt to shove Sam away. Sam didn’t snap often and he had a good reason this time, so Dean was not going to break it up. He was glad he was getting the brunt of it and not Sarah; there would be a lot of spillover and Sam and Sarah would deal with that later as it came. Sarah was still trying to hold it together and would never quite come loose, but Sam would do it for her at some point. It had been bad for them all, but Sam had been pushed too far.


Lifting his arm meant using muscles he didn’t want to, so Dean clutched a handful of the jacket at Sam’s waist and held on. He’d torn a stitch or two catching the axe handle and didn’t want to push things any further. At least not on that front.


“Sammy,” he said, “We’re all okay. We’re - “


Dean slammed his own head back against the dry, rotting boards and didn’t even feel it because Sam had moved his hand from Dean’s shoulder and shoved it under his shirt, hand cold and flat and spread against the bare skin just above the small of Dean’s back. That fast, without warning, without conscious intention, Sam was inside.


Dean had been too out of it, too close to sliding away intangibly the last couple of times it had happened to have any solid, coherent memory of what it had really felt like. This time he was wide, wide awake and he got it, not just what it meant and not just meeting Sam in the middle to try and get back to the world. This time there was no middle ground, just Sam and all the things that made him Sam, with Dean as touchstone, locked in place while Sam searched him.


With the two good synapses left firing in his brain Dean remembered telling Sarah Sam has all my keys and for an instant he got a glimpse of the fact that it went both ways. But Sam had him lit up like a Christmas tree, and people weren’t meant to feel that much, every nerve firing with what could have been pleasure or pain or both, without coming or dying. Dean did neither, just held on while Sam reminded himself that life still felt and tasted like this, like love and risk and almost-loss, that Dean was still solidly rooted in his physical form, smoothing edges that didn’t need it and didn’t mind it.


That level of invasion would have been rape if not for the fact that the door was always open for Sam.


When his sight and hearing snapped back on, Dean had no sense of how much time had passed, but he could see the fire over Sam’s shoulder and it didn’t seem any lower.


Sam was holding him up instead of holding him down, one huge hand cupping the back of his head and trying to get his attention. He was a little preoccupied with the endorphin high he was on to respond, because whatever else Sam had been in there doing, he’d also managed to trigger all the really good stuff because nothing hurt.


“Wow,” he said.


Sam sagged in relief as far as he could without allowing Dean to slide down the wall. He pressed one side of his face to Dean’s and Dean was glad he still hadn’t seen his expression. “I’m sorry,” Sam whispered. “Dean - “


“Dean’s not here right now,” Dean said. “Please leave a message.”


Sam’s shoulders shook a little, and Dean couldn’t quite tell whether it was tears or laughter or both. “I’m sorry,” Sam whispered again.


“If you could just kind of...shut up and get off me and burn that thing, I’ll forgive you,” Dean said, but he leaned his face into Sam’s as he said it.


-|-


Three days later Dean was still at Sam and Sarah’s. Danielle and Charlie had gone home, the girls had gone back to school, and nothing felt normal...but the routine helped. Dean slept a lot and tried not to be pissed about it. Sam went back to work, and he and Dean didn’t talk much - it was hard to tell who was avoiding who on that point, even for Sarah.


It was by design that they ended up on the back deck together after dinner the third day. Sam went out first and waited, listening to the neighbors mow the lawn next door.


Dean finally came out and kicked the back of Sam’s chair before settling down next to him without looking at him. His sleeves were pushed up far enough for Sam to see the scabbing on his wrists. The marks from the restraints would scar like everything else.


“It never occurred to me to measure Dwight’s skeleton,” Dean said. “If for nothing else than just to be thorough. I slipped on that one.”


“And when you found out he was six foot?” Sam said. “What then? It wouldn’t have meant anything to us. He died in prison.”


Dean started to shrug and realized that was a bad idea. Man, those muscles were going to take a long time to heal. With cuts that deep, a lot of nerves had been severed and he’d never feel areas of his chest again. Considering that he’d come pretty close to never feeling anything again, he didn’t really care all that much. But it was one set of scars he wasn’t wearing as a badge of honor.


“I didn’t imagine the worst,” Dean said. “That’s where I fucked up. Before, when we were hunting? I would have burned that skeleton the moment I found out about it, just on principal.”


We didn’t imagine the worst,” Sam corrected. “Because we’re sane.”


Dean glanced at him without turning his head. “Speak for yourself,” he muttered.


Sam grinned.


“Our kids took care of us on this one,” Dean said.


The grin vanished. “I know.”


“I’m still going to kick your ass for involving Charlie,” Dean said.


“I’ve been downgraded from ‘I’m going to fuck you up’ to an asskicking?” Sam said.


“We’ll see,” Dean said. He finally turned his head to look at Sam. “Allie stepped up.”


“Everybody did,” Sam said. “But yeah, she’s...I don’t want them hunting.”


“Me neither,” Dean said. “But there’s only so much we’re going to be able to keep her out of. She’s as stubborn as you. She’s got the heart for it.”


They were silent for a long moment.


“What are we gonna do if all our kids have powers?” Dean said.


“Help them with it,” Sam said. “Try not to make Charlie too angry.” He smirked as he said it, but when he looked at Dean, he could see the worry etched on his face. “She won’t be dangerous, Dean,” he said softly. “She just needs a way to get a handle on it.”


“Charlie doesn’t seem to understand that she has limits,” Dean said. “That’s a lot more dangerous.”


A chill moved across the deck, and they both glanced up at the same time. It looked for a moment like the figure of a hunched, elderly woman was passing by the steps, a gray haired eyeless crone, but before either of them could react, there was a thud on the boards of the deck behind them.


Dean stood, and Sam twisted to look. It was a bone. An earth-brown, very aged bone that looked like it might have been a femur.


Dean glanced back, but she was already gone. He looked at Sam and nodded.


She had only been taking care of her own, by any means necessary.


Sam and Dean could understand that.


-|- -|- -|-


-|- -|-


-|-


Epilogue        


Two months later



Dean popped into Sam’s office and sat down, propping his feet on Sam’s desk. “So,” he said in a purposely conversational tone and without any preamble, “Dani’s pregnant.”


Sam turned to look at him, his expression indicating that the bomb he’d just dropped in the middle of the room was a shock. “Wow,” he said.


“Yeah, wow.”


Sam blinked. “She didn’t mention being that serious with anyone while she was - “


“Sam,” Dean said, cutting him off.


Sam just kept looking at him.


“Catch up with me here, wonder boy,” Dean said.


Sam’s eyes widened and he came and sat down closer to Dean. “No.”


“The stick she peed on says yes,” Dean said. “And there hasn’t been anybody else in like the last year or something, so...”


“So are you guys - “


“It was a...spur of the moment thing,” Dean said. The gleam in his eyes said more.


“You’re back together,” Sam said.


“I didn’t say that, Nosy Nelly,” Dean said.


“You guys are having another kid, I’d call that together,” Sam said. “Does Charlie know?”


“The issue’s gonna get forced soon,” Dean said. “Don’t you think?”


Sam bit his lip and waited. “You guys gonna get married again?”


Dean looked at him like he’d lost his mind.


Sam shrugged. “Why not?”


“People only get one chance to toss me, Sam,” Dean said. “We’re as together as we need to be. It’s just a ritual, anyway.”


Just a ritual. “Til death do you part,” Sam said.


Dean gave him a sour glare. “Death doesn’t seem to do much for ending anything, if you haven’t noticed,” he said.


Sam laughed.


-|-