a/n: there is no crematorium, past or present, in Fort Morgan, Colorado. No besmirchment of Fort Morganians intended. I'm sure they dispose of their dead just fine .
Nothing seemed changed when they returned to the motel room. Not with the room itself, anyway.
Sam allowed himself a little confusion over why he didn't have a headache for the first time in weeks. The absence of it seemed more of a shock than the nonstop pain. It occurred to him that accidentally siphoning off some sort of extra charge that had been building along the parts of Dean he'd missed was granting him a reprieve even though it hadn't felt like one at the time.
The EMF meter was making low, electronic wailing noises as Dean walked the room with it. There was nothing there with them now, but there'd been something. Dean was totally, really, absolutely not not not talking about whatever had gone on with the Unlocker of Doors. It wasn't going to happen again. Assuming anything had actually happened. Which it hadn't, if Sam was asking, which he damn well better not.
"I didn't salt the door," Sam said. "After everything we've been through lately, I didn't...it's the most basic thing. Fuck ."
"Yeah, this is your fault," Dean said. "Get all drunk and forget to salt the door, that's my Sam. Would you knock it off?"
"We're clumsy," Sam said, anger rising in his voice for once. "This isn't like us , Dean."
"We haven't been like us ever, Sam," Dean threw back. "There is no 'like us'. We change to match whatever situation we run into. You changed when you went away to school, you're different again now, you're always changing. I'm whoever anybody wants me to be. So don't say like us ." He remembered the revenant saying no one knows you, eldest and he hated that it was the thing that stuck with him most.
Sam found himself actually leaning away a little at the vehemence and the uncharacteristic...honesty, if nothing else. It may not have been altogether true, but it was honest. "Fine," he said, the anger gone as quickly as it had come.
Dean grabbed the laptop and booted it, turning his back to Sam as he sat on the bed furthest from the door. He was more embarrassed than angry, but he was accustomed to showing each the same way since they weren't necessarily that different. He'd had enough time to think about what they'd run into earlier that morning while he watched Sam try to come back around, and his current search led him further down those same paths.
He could hear Sam doing pushups on the floor behind him, and found himself subconsciously counting as he tapped the keyboard. Thralls. They had to have been Thralls. That was how he knew the thing unlocking the door wasn't the same as what had been staring at him in the dark. Thralls gathered when there was something they couldn't resist. They were harmless and came in many shapes and sizes, and his brand were likely just the first to catch up to them. He hadn't heard of them in years - they usually hung around the soon-to-be dead or the newly born, attracted by an emerging soul. They kept to the realm between life and death until summoned or until they just coudn't resist something.
He couldn't even make an internal joke about being irresistable. Nine, ten, eleven.
Now that he was fairly sure of what they were, he didn't need to shoot at them anymore.
He wanted to ask Sam about it, because Sam knew more about it than he did - Sam had more of a sense of self than he did, Sam had a better grasp on what had really gone down. Sam was built to feel and comprehend these things better, or maybe just only where Dean was concerned. Why he was so dead against acknowledging it much less talking about any of it out loud, he didn't know or care. It was another impulse that he felt was wisest just to follow for now. He couldn't handle that Sam might be the only thing to save him, at his own expense, if he was really coming loose again. Twenty two, twenty three, twenty four.
Something had seen him, seen enough of him to run him through its fingers from the other side of a door. Sam'd had...standing permission of a sort, to do what he'd done; Sam had been respectful and had belonged. Sam had been comfortable and welcome, and he couldn't even think hard about that. The uninvited guest had been cold and calculating but had not been evil . That was maybe the hardest thing to take. It had only felt like it was feeding, like any predator. Cheetahs weren't evil when they brought down an antelope, they were just doing what they were made to do.
Being an antelope sucked.
Sam could probably seal him up the rest of the way.
It was a hard, hard thing to ask. So for now he'd suck it up and they'd move quick enough to keep it from being an issue. He knew they could. They'd have to. It would be fine. Thirty eight, thirty nine, forty.
The other option was to figure out what the hell it was and kill it before it sucked him dry. Vampire...no, not the right behavior or approach. He wasn't open; Sam had had to make contact to get the kind of backlash he had. He was just...condensating soul energy on the outside. Leaving trails, like Sam had said. He had to learn to cover his tracks until they figured out how to shut him down.
Instead of searching for history, he started by adding first the word scandal and then desecration because that was always amusing. Fifty two, fifty three, fifty four. Showoff. Fort Morgan Colorado + improper burial.
"Oh, paydirt," Dean said. "And all without talking to the locals." He turned himself around on the bed and turned the laptop toward Sam. "Read, Grasshopper."
Sam made a face at the smugness in his tone but stood, having barely broken a sweat. He took the laptop and sat on the other bed, adjusting the monitor to keep the light from the windows from throwing a glare. 14 Bodies Found: Local crematorium continued to operate despite lack of a 'working oven'. Seventeen different articles popped up in the search, beginning with the discovery of a shallow grave that was a little too shallow: someone's dog brought home several human fingers. Then, detailing the progression of a search by local law enforcement and volunteers. Fourteen bodies had been found, whole and in parts, scattered around the grounds of the crematorium and the woods behind. If there were others, no one was quite sure. Most had been buried in an attempt at some sort of decorum, the graves marked with small handwoven wreaths of local dried flowers. Homemade funerals. Change Of Heart: 'cremation a sin', owners say.
Some had not made it to burial and had been propped in the garage when the owners ran out of room .
They hadn't meant 'any harm', according to the articles; they'd run the place for years, servicing twelve local funeral homes. Then they'd decided it wasn't right to keep reducing the paying public to ash and fragments. But instead of selling the business, they'd taken it upon themselves to make other choices for their customers. Like handing over small boxes of fireplace ashes instead of actual cremains.
Indictment of the owners, litigation, then silence. The place had been turned upside down, then shut down. Sam could see there'd been a struggle to keep it local; it was a good scandal, the type that a culture fascinated with death could ogle without shame.
"This just happened last year," Sam said finally. "Like that one in Georgia, in '02. That one was all over the news. There were hundreds of bodies in the woods, jammed into storage sheds, tossed into the pond out back, and they gave people urns with, like, concrete powder in them and said it was grandma. But this one...it wasn't laziness. They buried the people, or tried to. It's still...wrong, but they didn't just toss them in the woods."
"The folks didn't wanna be buried, though," Dean said. "The families backed out of having the remains cremated anywhere else and had proper burials done in cemeteries. So we've got all these people who didn't get the send-off they asked for. Rotting in the ground. Sitting in storage in the garage. That's fuckin' crazy."
"So...what? They're mad because they were buried, so they're cremating everybody they run across by drawing lightning?" Sam said. "C'mon."
"No, don't jump so far," Dean said. "Think about it. How many times have we run across a group of spirits, instead of just one or two?"
"Okay," Sam said, "Assuming the lights are the people who were buried instead of cremated. Would they be hanging around together? Why wouldn't they just go on?"
"After being forced to play tea party in a garage for who knows how long?" Dean said. "Some people are pretty serious about how they go. It said fourteen were found . There could be others, and a lot of people don't want to poke at the ashes they were given. They just call it done and put 'em on the mantel or in the closet, or do some scattering, or get a nice little vault. Not everybody's gonna ask whether what they got is really their dearly departed dad."
Sam nodded. "It's too hard," he said. "It's like going through the loss all over again. They don't say exactly when the cremations stopped or the oven stopped working. They only said they took the breakdown as a 'sign'."
"I changed my mind," Dean said. "When I go, don't have me cremated. Or maybe just do it yourself. A nice Viking funeral."
"I know you think that's funny," Sam said without looking up, "But it's not. There are a lot of days I feel like setting you on fire, but don't joke about dying anymore."
"Don't be so sensitive, Sam," Dean said, and he wasn't looking up either. "There's this chick in the Netherlands or somewhere that actually dips corpses in liquid nitrogen, then shatters your ass all over the place and freeze-dries you. Then you get planted with a tree. I fuckin' love that. I'll let you pick the tree."
Sam clicked the laptop shut with very calm hands.
"It's not like I'm asking you to freeze my head," Dean said. "Go all Walt Disney on your ass or anything. Make you carry it around in a lunchbox like Dahmer. See if you can find me a nice Zeppelin lunchbox."
Sam got up and left the room, movements stiff and abrupt with anger, closing the door behind softly in counterpoint.
Dean cursed softly to himself, knowing he should occasionally shut up but not wanting to. Sam never used to be so touchy except for a while during puberty. It wasn't like they were going to live forever. Death was part of their everyday lives, and Dean had accepted that right up front.
He let it go for a moment, then sighed and got up to go chase his brother.
When he opened the door, Sam was nowhere in sight, so he stalled by checking the weather. Partly cloudy. Sam had probably gone to get a soda , as he liked to claim he was doing when he had no other lameass excuse to make himself scarce. It wasn't soda anyway, it was pop, dammit, and being on the west coast for four years didn't give him license to forget he was from the midwest. Well, sort of. They were mostly from everywhere.
Everywhere, all the time.
There'd been that one space of time, when he and Sam were almost uncontrollable, and only the most basic and ingrained urge to obey their father kept them from running completely wild. They were similar in their ironic detachment from the world for awhile, playmates on the same level. The age difference had begun to lose its importance, and Sam had become perilously close to being an equal. He could never stop feeling a responsibility to keep Sam out of harm's way, but for almost two years before Sam left for college, there had been a long, insane camaraderie. Lord of the Flies without pig's heads on sticks. Sam had openly worshiped him, occasionally cast as the faithful sidekick, but he was more of a co-conspirator during the worst of it. Months had trailed on and Dean had known Sam didn't want that life anymore, that the constant moving made him restless for something else, as contradictory as that seemed. He knew it but didn't want to acknowledge it or even let Sam talk about it. Sam would never be older than his teens, the lunacy would go on forever, and he would never lose his best friend.
He had frozen himself in that one best, brightest place, never getting past it. Never growing past it. In case it happened again.
It had started as an assigned duty; watching out for Sam. But after awhile to call it duty felt cold and sterile. It was never duty or work or a requirement, to love Sam. Sam had never dragged him down or been a source of resentment when he'd needed to learn to tie his shoes or tell time or couldn't reach the easiest things. Sam was a gift, and when he'd finally caught up and kept up, the life they'd led became sheer freedom .
He so wanted that back.
It was never going to happen.
He took a step out onto the gravel, staring off to his left. He wasn't sure if he could stand being the one out of step forever, but more than that, it would be impossible to do without even just this, this stumbling around with his only genuine claim to grace .
"You don't have to taunt me to get me to tell you how much you mean to me," Sam said from his right.
Startled, Dean turned to look at Sam, then made an impatient gesture. "Jesus. You're so in touch with yourself, Sam. Use a tissue."
"And you don't have to insult me to tell me how much I mean to you," Sam said. "So shut up. Except, you know. Keep talking. Just not out your ass, for maybe a whole five minutes at a time."
Sam walked away, headed down the road to the mini-mart, but there was nothing defeated in the way he did it. Dean shook his head, then found himself trying not to laugh. "Hey, what'd you have to go and grow up for? Getting all mature on me. Loser."
"Keep trying, Dean," Sam called over his shoulder. "You can do it."
Later that afternoon, when Sam had given them both enough space to recharge and lose the urge to snap, they went looking for the Holy Valley Crematorium. The concrete block building was low and long, and had probably begun to show signs of age before it was boarded up. It was painted a utilitarian beige that was flaking for years before the doors had been chained, but it still didn't look forbidding. Not with the loops and scrawls of grafitti proclaiming territorial dominance in seven colors on the side they could see.
"Why don't they just piss on everything like the rest of the animal kingdom does?" Dean said.
The grass had already grown enough in a year to reclaim a good part of the walkway leading to the main entrance, and whatever had passed for landscaping had run wild, azaleas tipping over under their own flowers, Korean boxwood sending shoots skyward and ruining their carefully square-cut configurations. The place was set back far enough from the road and far enough from any of the surrounding businesses that breaking and entering in daylight wasn't much of a risk.
Dean smirked at the 'no trespassing' signs and poked at one with the cutters he'd brought. They headed around to the rear of the building, following the paved turnaround that countless hearses had traversed. There was a halfassed loading dock in the back, the doors chained a little less securely than the front. The chain was already rusting. Dean snapped it and Sam caught it, and they pulled the doors closed behind as they let themselves in.
It was dim because the windows were boarded up, and dusty as hell, but the off white linoleum was still intact and the place had been cleared out otherwise. Clinical and serene, no shades of charnelhouse horror, just an abandoned building with a past that was no longer visible. The last third of the building was offset slightly and partitioned off with a cinderblock wall; the oven had its own chamber. When they rounded the corner with flashlights at the ready, they found it still intact but disconnected from the chimney and filters that had kept it within EPA guidelines. A huge stone and metal construct with a single metal grate opening in the front.
"Y'know, they come computerized now," Dean said. "This is an antique. Bet it could still get up to a good 1800 degrees or so. Kinda...looks like a pizza oven."
Sam went around the side to look at it, and Dean opened the door and poked the flashlight inside. There was a grating inside, cut into the stone, a way of catching remains.
Dean ran a finger along one of the scallop-edged surfaces and rubbed the residue between thumb and forefinger, thinking about how everything you touched left a part behind.
"You didn't," Sam said, shining his flashlight on him.
"Sam," Dean said, "I've been splattered with zombies and all kinds of corpse-crap over the years. This is nothing. It's not like I'm gonna put it in my coffee or snort it off a mirror."
He could hear Sam trying not to laugh, and he wondered why he even bothered trying to hide it at all.
"There's nothing here," Sam said. "Garage?"
They went out the back without trying to fasten the chain back into place. The garage had been torn down.
They went back to the motel to shower and eat and set an alarm clock for dusk, because there was no better time to visit the remainder of the sites where lightning had struck previously. The ignis didn't care about the crematorium and apparently not about the cemetery where its last dissatisfied customers had been laid to unrest; they were showing up to randomly chase anyone wandering the roads on foot.
Sam was against it because he thought it was just a way of offering themselves as bait. For a lot of things.
He didn't know what Dean knew, and Dean was partial to keeping it that way.
"Then just stay here," Dean said, knowing he was being a bastard. He cared about it but not enough to stop.
"Whatever that was this morning will be able to find us in the open just as well as it found us here," Sam said.
"You mean me," Dean said, barely able to keep his eyes open. "It's not looking for you, Sam."
"Yeah," Sam said. "Whatever looks for you is gonna find me."
Dean rolled over above the covers so that he was facing Sam, keeping his eyes closed. No point arguing. He blamed it on being tired.