Spoilers for season one.
Warning: cursing. a/n: The first line is a direct quote from my sister. Props again and often to Maygra for inspiration. Posthumous apologizes to the jogger who met a perfectly-angled bolt of lightning at a nearby park about 10 years ago. Kids: don't jog near trees when it's thundering. Fire hurties , head go boom .
Fort Morgan, Colorado
"There's always some drunk bitch with a quarter," Dean said.
Sam wasn't listening; he was keeping one eye on the baseball game on the TV hanging from a corner of the ceiling to his left and the other was engaged in poking through the journal yet again. The smallest details popped occasionally. He had never perused the thing like Dean had - he didn't have the pages memorized and idolized as the New Winchester Bible, and sometimes the distance gave him an advantage.
Dean knew Sam wasn't listening because he could feel Sam's attention when it was on him, the last couple of days. That was something he never tried to understand or consciously acknowledge, because his finely tuned sense of self preservation cringed from it. It made him behave differently, better or worse depending on the situation. Admitting he knew it was there led to admitting he needed it, and that wasn't kosher. So the running commentary tonight was for his own benefit, and externalizing every small annoyance was satisfying.
"Not good enough to let the radio play, it's gotta be all this shit your little friends like to listen to," Dean said, the last aimed at Sam only because he knew it wasn't heard. Sam hated the 'your little friends' designation, meaning people your age and/or college kids . It was purposely derogatory and belittling and Dean only used it to push Sam's buttons because even bad press is still press. The girl at the jukebox was wearing camo pants and a tank top and wasn't Dean's type, so he felt free to vent his ire on her from a distance because she was forcing him to listen to rap. It was one of those newer boxes that let you download anything from the internet, and he thought someone should fix it so that only certain things came down the pike.
The impact to the stool he was sitting on was violent enough to catch him off guard and it nearly sent him off balance. He grabbed the edge of the table in both hands, frowning at Sam.
Sam drew his foot back. He'd never even looked up. "If you're that bored," he said softly enough that Dean had to lean forward to catch it, "...go sit in the car. I kinda remember a Black Sabbath marathon at the last bar we were at, and only you - "
"Have decent taste in music," Dean said. "Shut up. All you had to do was ask, if you're lookin' for something in there."
Sam raised his eyes without raising his face, looking at Dean from beneath his brows and keeping his expression neutral. Dean held his gaze for only an instant, then glanced at bad-rap-camo-pants again for distraction.
Sam kept looking at him, wishing he had the guts to stand up to Dean the way he'd always stood up to their father. He wanted to shove him into corners and demand answers, but it wasn't the same. He held respect for Dean that he never would for anyone else, and even worse, a soft spot. He had no problem telling Dean when he was wrong or an asshole, had tried to walk away a second time, but he only stood up to Dean when he was incredibly pissed off. It was too hard otherwise and took steel he wanted to reserve for things that deserved it. It felt like cruelty, and he no longer had it in him to approach even perceived cruelty with Dean.
"Dad's got nothing in here about spooklights," Sam said. "He's never run into them before, so, another first we get to add to this thing." He unfolded the scrap of newspaper again, ignoring the fact that he'd worn it thin with folding; he'd been looking at it almost compulsively since he'd found it. It gave him something to do with his hands, somewhere else to look but Dean.
Roughly a hundred people were killed in the US by lightning every year. In Fort Morgan, Colorado, someone was killed by it once a week with or without a storm in the area and no one seemed to have heard thunder. Locals had 'seen floating lights', so the papers had assumed ball lightning. The article Sam held was the only one that had a point map of each sighting in addition to each death. Joggers, dogwalkers, one girl on horseback. Dean had given the article a cursory glance, then laughed about the 'lightning safety' warnings at the bottom: stay away from trees, get off the golf course, drop your umbrella, crouch down and cover your head. Dean's addition had been stop, drop, roll and kiss your ass goodbye .
Floating lights in the daylight and after dark. Spooklights, ignis fatuus , will o' the wisps. Not their regular thing, but mainly because little lights weren't usually involved in the modus operandi of anything that tended to prey on the masses. Orbs and spooklights were giveaways of spirit activity and not much else. It was light sometimes seen over marshy ground, believed to be burning gas containing methane from decaying organic matter. Some Australian scientist had suggested that the phenomenon might be caused by barn owls, which apparently sometimes developed a ghostly glow due to a light-emitting honey fungus that they picked up from rotting trees.
"Spooklights are like the Care Bears of the spirit world, that's why," Dean said, turning his beer bottle in place with two fingers near the top. "They only mean there's something else there. They don't actually do anything."
"When they're mistaken for ball lightning, and seen in the daylight, it tells me they're a little bigger than usual," Sam said.
"Well, no one's disappearing, right?" Dean said. "So they're not leading anybody off to fairy land or anything. It's probably a few really pissed off locals who don't realize they're dead yet." He paused. "Sidhe?"
"I'm not sure," Sam said. "But, hey, why Sidhe in the middle of Colorado? What is it about this one place?"
"That's your deal, geek-boy," Dean said. "I don't understand why you don't have it figured out yet. Why d'you think I even keep you around? Your weight drags the car down and lowers my gas mileage, and you sure as hell aren't good company."
Sam glanced up at him again, hoping Dean would look back long enough to get flipped off, but Dean's eyes skittered away immediately.
"I'm assuming this is all one area," Dean said, frowning at camo girl again. She was dancing now. Dean recognized it as the Three Sheets to the Wind dance.
"Sort of," Sam said. "Suburbs, mostly. There's no pattern that I can see, or anything, but it's in one basic area."
"Any massacres or anything go on over there?" Dean said.
"History of the area isn't panning out so far," Sam said, still staring at him. "I haven't tried everything yet, though. How come we didn't burn that house?"
Dean swiveled his head back to look at Sam for just a moment, then he looked at the tabletop instead. Sam waited. He folded the article again, because maybe when he unfolded it the next time it would tell him more and maybe Dean would be as readable.
"It wasn't ready to go yet," Dean said, then slid off his stool. "Try not to get kidnapped while I take a leak. Or if you do, try for something like a team of cheerleaders this time."
Neighborhoods and trails, parks and schoolyards and vacant lots. Suburbia, with all its white noise; nearby freeways and the occasional commercial airliner overhead. Sam liked the complacent sameness of it, knowing Dean would snub his nose at the idea of settling down in a place like this. The nine-to-fivers with their regimented, predictable lives were a bare step above cattle in Dean's estimation. They were automatons with zombie-like propensities for staring at computers and TV's. He didn't have to say it aloud. They were necessary evils on his way to the next real thing. They didn't live the way Winchesters lived, free of the pedantic and pedestrian, tasting every breath and not expecting the next to come, taking nothing for granted.
They started with the site of the most recent death, a side road where a jogger with a portable CD player had been running at dusk. The CD inside had been found hanging precariously by its center hole from a branch nearly fifty yards away; one of her shoes, laceless, had been across the road, blown off with the rest of her clothing. She was only identifiable by a small tattoo on one ankle; she'd had two amalgam fillings but they'd melted, and in any case her teeth had burned along with most of her skin. Dean had theorized that her eyes had probably exploded, boiling right out of her head, and Sam had pretended not to hear. He was well aware of what high voltage could do, and he didn't want to give Dean a reason to keep talking about it but he didn't want him to stop either for once. Dean was caught up and macabrely fascinated and not pausing to think that Sam probably didn't want to know what happened when girls burned.
Dean kept his eyes on the side of the road, and Sam wasn't sure what he was looking for. They were on the right road, but as for the exact location, nothing in the papers or reports online pinpointed the spot. It had been a week since the strike and it hadn't received much more than a sixth page notice below the fold to begin with. Freak accidents were only cool for a day, and then they were just local color. The sum of a life reduced to a non-story.
Dean pulled to the right suddenly, onto the gravel, and killed the engine. He checked over his shoulder before he pushed the door open and waved Sam along.
Sam unfolded himself and waited with his forearms on the roof of the car while Dean jogged across the road. He scuffed a foot, looked up into the branches of the oak that was towering over the spot, then crouched down to look at the surface of the road. Sam left his door open and meandered across the road without bothering to check for traffic. He could see for almost half a mile in either direction and it wasn't a well-traveled road. He stood a few feet away from Dean and watched.
"Sam," Dean said. "Look."
Sam glanced, then came closer when Dean didn't offer anything else. He was staring at the edge of the asphalt directly across from the trunk of the old oak.
"It's lightning glass," Dean said.
The hole was about three feet across and jagged-edged, nearly deep enough to breach all of the road's layers. The asphalt had fused to glass, obsidian black and reflective, an uneven gouge in the artificial surface. Dean pulled the EMF meter out of one pocket and switched it on. It wailed fitfully for a moment, then stopped. When he moved a little, it started up again, then trailed off.
"Residuals," he said as if to himself. "Maybe some of it's just...there was a lot of juice through here." He nodded toward the melted spot in the road. "Fulgurite, I think it's called," he said. "Usually if it hits where there's sand, it makes shapes..." He trailed off. "You know all this. You don't need me to say it."
"Yeah I do," Sam mumbled. "For the first time in my life I just wanna hear your voice."
Dean turned without rising. "What?"
"That wasn't nothing . If you've got something to say, Sam, say it."
"Why?" Sam said. "It's never anything you'd want to hear, and even if you did you'd just ignore it."
Dean pushed back to his feet with his hands against his thighs and turned all the way toward Sam, hands on hips, feet apart, the set of his shoulders letting Sam know there was going to be a confrontation. Sam didn't look at his face and didn't need to; he kept his gaze somewhere in the middle of Dean's chest. Nothing even approaching confrontation came, and Sam didn't glance up, choosing to wait him out. He could do that, he'd always done that, except usually he was rolling his eyes and sighing. Younger Sam had done those things. Older Sam was too tired and had been through it all before and no longer had the urge to be impatient.
"I could have this conversation with any girlfriend," Dean said.
"If you'd ever really had one," Sam retorted.
"Yeah, accuse me of being evasive and then stand there and do the whole righteous prick act," Dean said, but he took a step away. "Nothing's ever stopped you from speaking your mind before. I think it takes an act of God to make you stop talking. So if something's going on with you, now's the time. Under a tree on the side of the road. Where we do all our best business."
Sam dropped his eyes to the... act of God near his feet, thinking about the heat it took to make glass of anything. Lightning often reached temps three times that of the surface of the sun, changing the nature of things when it made contact along the path of least resistance. He tilted his head back to look at the oak, finding scorch marks along the branches directly above them and an area of missing leaves that had let the lightning through. It had chosen to ignore the highest point and had angled through the branches as if it had purpose.
"I don't have a problem," Sam said, still looking at the tree. "With you, anyway. I just, uh..." He looked directly at Dean, watching Dean almost immediately drop his eyes. It made him feel so defeated . "You don't even know you're doing it," Sam said, voice ringing with sadness before he could adjust it. "Do you. I fucked up, here, and I don't know how to fix it."
"If this is about the goddamn asylum thing again - " Dean started.
"No," Sam said. "You still think about that a lot, though. I can't blame you for it."
Dean was opening his mouth to ask Sam how he knew that, but Sam was already moving on because he didn't want to have to explain how he knew . "There've been times since that I could have and maybe should have taken you out and didn't, times when something with your face was asking for it and I couldn't because it was your face and I was all me." He felt like he was losing his ability to do more than gush, and he hated it but he wasn't sure he could reign himself in after all the silence. "You don't ever have to understand that, or believe me, because I probably don't deserve it. You could look at me, though, because anything I've done, any of it? I never meant to hurt you. You could just look at me when you talk to me, or if you can't just tell me why."
Dean stared right at him for a long moment, taken aback and not bothering to hide it. He could see how upset Sam was and it made a difference. "You're like a lighthouse, Sam," Dean said softly, and Sam tensed. "I don't have any other way to explain it, it's just...you're kind of too bright to look at all of a sudden. If it was ever like that for you while I was...whatever I was, then..." He was stumbling, and he knew it. He just wasn't good at this, but he was trying. He dropped his eyes again. When he could finally look up, he realized how pale Sam had become. "What."
"That's what Once called me," Sam said. "A lighthouse."
Dean looked away again. "Once..."
"Is what I called it," Sam said. "It didn't have a name of its own, I don't think, and I couldn't assign your name to it."
"What exactly did you do for a week, with that chasing you?" Dean said. "You ever gonna tell me?"
"I ran," Sam said. "Don't change the subject."
"Neither of us knows what the fucking subject is," Dean said. "That thing's what started all of this. If I was getting...loose again, you'd tell me, right? Because last time you didn't."
"I didn't know what was going on," Sam said. "I still don't. I don't know how I put you back together, or whether I did something to mess you up when I did, because maybe you aren't really back together, maybe I only put things back where I thought they should be, and - "
"Sammy," Dean said softly.
Sam looked toward him but not directly at him, trying to keep from burning Dean with what they'd left behind on each other's souls. "You were like one of those stupid glowsticks we were always carrying," he said. "The ones we'd poke holes in so we could find our way in the dark. You left tracks and smears everywhere, and I'm afraid they'll never fade. I'm afraid of what might be able to track you because I didn't find a way to keep you from leaving yourself everywhere. I'm not worrying for the sake of giving myself something to do this time. I'm not being neurotic. I messed with who you are ."
"I feel fine," Dean said. "Did you think I was...pissed, or being weird about you having your hands places I'd never let anybody else touch?"
There was no sarcasm in his tone, but Sam quirked his mouth and turned his head away all the same.
"What the fuck is wrong with you, Sam?" Dean said. "Who the hell else was going to put me back? Who the hell else knows where things go? I don't."
Sam was shaking his head, not actually negation, just reaction.
"Well...knock it off, then," Dean said. "Dumbass."
"I don't know what I did," Sam said. "I'm not sure how I did it. I don't know if you're gonna come apart again." He wanted to admit that he was pretty sure he'd used part of whatever passed for his own soul to patch Dean back together, but he didn't want to sound maudlin.
"And we can worry about it if it actually happens," Dean said. "You didn't hurt me. We didn't end up in the damn hole. Winchesters, two, stupid holes, nothing. Maybe I should kick your ass a little more often." He tucked the meter away and looked up into the tree again, frowning. "Let's get out of here, get shitfaced, and check a few other spots in the morning. The bodies are all buried, so no chance of looking at any of 'em. Unless..."
"No, Dean," Sam said automatically. "No digging. Go get autopsy photos off rotten.com, I'm sure they're there already."
Dean shrugged. "If you're gonna be that way...figure out what all these folks have in common besides where they live. I'll look at all the little ground zeros."
"Not alone," Sam said. "You don't check every spot alone."
Dean looked at him for a moment before looking away again. His expression was inscrutible, but Sam knew without knowing that Dean was agreeing but having a hard time doing it. He didn't want to split up, he was actually apprehensive for once about going anywhere alone, and all he could do was be quiet while Sam told him how it would be. It was a strange place for Sam to find himself.
"We don't know what's here and I'm not sure what can 'see' you," Sam said. "So don't even try it."
"I don't wanna play Whitney Houston to your Kevin Costner," Dean said with a smirk.
"Oh, you wish ," Sam said, beginning to cross the road toward the car.
"We're fine, Sam," Dean said. When Sam stopped in the middle of the road but didn't react otherwise, he repeated it louder with emphasis on the we're.
There was a long moment of some kind of waiting, but not for any particular thing. Then Sam bolted for the car the same time Dean did, as if a starter's pistol had gone off, the two of them in perfect synch. Dean was faster but Sam had a head start, and he raised a forearm to the side to block Dean from getting to the driver's side doorhandle.
"You are not driving, " Dean growled, trying to get around him.
"Yes I am, Whitney," Sam said, sticking one foot between Dean's ankles and hooking it behind a knee.
Three solid minutes of scuffling later, someone drove by and slowed enough to make it seem as if they thought they should get involved. Sam and Dean both waved and grinned, Sam with one hand holding Dean's head away and Dean with one hand in a death grip on Sam's shirt.