Characters: Dean, Sam
Rating: PG-13 for language
Spoilers: Set in Season 2 dove-tailing the end of Episode 2.12, Nightshifter. If you're just joining the fun, spoilers up to then.
Summary: On the run from the FBI, the brothers are sidelined by a snowstorm and find themselves at the mercy of a sheltered town filled with secrets. Staying alive means staying together as they fight to stay on the surface.
Disclaimer: They're not mine. More's the pity.
A/N: As I wrote this chapter, Lawrence was buried in snow. Drifts taller than my four-year-old blocked our exits; however, we did have snow shovels. *grins* We have a bit of a bridge chapter here, but I think it will hold your attention. There is much more to come in the final two chapters. I hope you enjoy! *sips coffee from No Chick Flick Moments mug and dives in*.
And here come the waves
down by the shore
Washing the soul of the body
that comes from the depth of the sea
~ Ocean by Velvet Underground
The fire was dying.
The chill in the room was Sam's first clue. The wood had been reduced to fragile, glowing coals. He heard it collapsing across the grate, the sight of the sparks blocked by the position of the couch. The stale smell of fading embers wafted around them, overpowering the cooling coffee in the mug sitting at the tip of his finger's reach.
Sam's head bounced upright on the rubber band that was his neck, gravity slyly working to overpower will. Dean had gone quiet several minutes ago. Sam felt his brother's shoulder resting heavily against his and knew exhaustion had gotten a foothold despite his brother's struggle to rally. Sam couldn't remember the last time he'd been this tired. He was pretty sure it had been finals week his last year at Stanford.
A lifetime ago.
Taking a breath he blinked his eyes wide, arching his back away from the wall and stretching his arms out in front of him. What we need to do is hide, rest, and heal, Sam thought
Dean coughed, his chest rattling audibly, his back bouncing slightly against the wall. Sam closed his eyes, tipping his head back, breathing. Somewhere in the world there were people who stayed wrapped up in blankets sipping chicken soup and watching daytime TV if they were unlucky enough to fall into a frozen lake.
Somewhere in the world there were people who rested in dimly lit rooms, taking painkillers and putting cool cloths on their swollen eye after getting knocked out by a ham-sized fist.
"Time 's it anyway?" Dean muttered.
"Dunno. Daylight." Sam replied, not opening his eyes.
Somewhere in the world there were people who slept late, ate right, and never worried about walking wounded into a job they were wholly unprepared for. That place is not here, Sam thought sadly.
Dean's impassioned speech moments ago about taking on this hunt may have given them a direction, but finding the next step was the hard part. Sam was tired and hungry. He was worried about being in one place too long. He was scared that one wrong move would hit a beacon on Hendrickson's radar. And he was irritated that they had yet another hunt to focus on that was not going after that yellow-eyed bastard.
"'M starving," Dean sighed, rolling his head on the spike of his neck.
Sam felt the motion against him, felt Dean's shoulder brush his as they sat slumped along the wall in the run-down cabin of an off-duty Marine and his stroke-victim father.
What the hell are we even doing here? Sam's thoughts were dark, distracted. He rubbed the heel of his hand against the bridge of his nose, willing his insistent headache away. Needing it gone.
"You're always starving," Sam grumbled.
He used to think about the future. About what would come after they killed the demon—and they would, he knew; Dad had declared it and Sam knew Dean would make it so. He used to think he'd go back to Stanford. Or at least Palo Alto. He'd liked it there.
"Sue me," Dean muttered, pressing his hands flat against the floor and pushing himself up. "Haven't had anything but jerky and Hostess Pie for two days."
Dean grunted with the effort of rising and Sam peered at him through narrowed eyes, watching as he made it as far as his knees. Stuck in the hazy muck of his discouraged thoughts, Sam simply watched as Dean grabbed for the back of the couch and used the furniture as a prop to haul himself to his feet, not moving to help him stand.
His eyes tracked his brother's trembling efforts as Dean planted his feet, determined to work through whatever pain he was feeling, focused on a new task, a new hunt.
Sam used to imagine he'd become a lawyer after all of this was done. He could see his life so clearly, practically feel the peace of normalcy wrapping around that image. And he realized that he'd known for awhile that it was all a dream. Any after he'd conjured to keep himself sane was a work of fiction.
Life as a hunter wouldn't stop with The Demon.
Dean took a rough breath, then turned to face the kitchen, resting his rear on the back of the couch as he gained his balance.
Sam knew Dean would never stop. He would continue the fight to bring light to the darkness of the world until it killed him. There was no after for Dean. There was just this.
"Maybe Colin has some food we could borrow," Sam suggested, mentally shaking himself free of resistance and quietly engaging in whatever happened next.
"You think it's weird he hasn't come back?" Dean slid his eyes down to where Sam sat against the wall.
"How should I know?" Sam retorted. "I just met the guy."
"Yeah, but didn't you say his dad had a stroke? And he just left him here with two strangers?"
Sam shrugged, sighed, and stood, more than a little surprised that it took him about as much effort as it had taken Dean.
"All I know is," Sam said as he moved away from Dean and into the colder kitchen, "he somehow managed to save my ass from getting thrashed by five really big guys." He opened cupboards, peering inside at the collection of canned food. "And then," he continued, frowning as he searched for a can opener, "he shot you, bailed on me when I tried to get you into the house, and vanished before the sun was up."
"What the hell are you doing?" Dean asked, making his way into the kitchen, his eyes tracking Sam's sporadic movements around the kitchen.
"Looking for a can opener," Sam replied, slamming a drawer shut. "Dude probably uses a machete or something," he muttered under his breath.
"How about someplace in town?" Dean suggested.
"Haven't made it to town yet," Sam informed him.
"Yeah, me neither," Dean sighed.
"Diner?" Sam suggested.
Dean quirked an eyebrow. "Good a place as any."
"Besides," Sam said, heading for the fireplace where he'd laid the rest of their clothes to dry. "If Cooper is there, maybe we can get more answers."
Looking at the paltry collection of clothes, he glanced over at his brother. Dean was dressed in several layers, but Sam knew it wouldn't be enough. Even now he could see a fine tremor shift through his brother as Dean's body fought back the cold that had nearly killed him. He handed Dean his dark hoodie and the extra Carhartt.
"What about you?" Dean frowned, holding the clothing away from him as if they were on fire.
"I got about three more layers than you, man," Sam replied. "Plus, you just…look cold."
Wordlessly, Dean pulled on the hoodie; Sam felt a pang as he watched him shrug the too-big sweatshirt around to settle better on his shoulders. The last time he'd seen that garment on Dean, he'd been a few sluggish heartbeats away from being taken by a Reaper. He suppressed a shudder as the memory of Dean's staggered, fearful confession from last night slid through him.
"R-reaper…. C-coming…c-coming f-for m-m-me…."
Dean pulled the Carhartt on, the torn material at the jacket's shoulder covered by the new layer of cotton with Sam's dark hoodie. Oblivious to Sam's concern, he glanced over his shoulder at the door across the room. "We just leave him up there?"
Sam followed his gaze. "Think we should go tell him we're going?"
"Something," Dean shrugged. "Dude's basically helpless, right?"
Sam half turned toward the stairs, stopping to glance back at Dean as his brother cleared his throat, swallowing a cough.
What we need to do is hide, rest, and heal, he thought again, and instead we're checking up on a stranger's father before we go to save a town that hasn't even been asked to be saved.
"What?" Dean brought his eyebrows together in wary concern.
"Just…wondering what it's like to be in your head, I guess."
Dean lifted an eyebrow and drew his head back. "You're kinda weirdin' me out, dude."
"Forget it," Sam said softly as he grasped the doorknob and pulled the door to him. "I'd probably end up with nightmares, anyway."
"You're such a freak."
Sam climbed the stairs slowly, noting that the whispered voices he'd heard the night before were silent. "You're the freak," he muttered back at his brother as Dean's boots thumped up the stairs behind him.
They breeched the top of the stairs, Dean tucked up next to Sam so that their heads stuck up out of the hole in the floor, and looked around the dimly-lit room. An empty rocking chair sat in front of a dark TV on one side of a newspaper-covered window. Along the far wall Sam saw a table, a small, dorm-sized refrigerator, and a toilet with a privacy curtain hanging from the ceiling and pulled back against the wall.
Behind them was a twin bed; Wallace lay on the bed, his aged-spot covered face slack, his eyes closed, his mouth hanging open as if the hinges of his jaw had been removed. His arms were bent, clutched up against his chest as if he were holding onto something, but there was nothing in his grip.
"Is he dead?" Dean whispered, sounding all of five.
"God, I hope not," Sam replied softly.
"Shouldn't we check?"
Sam shot Dean a look out of the corner of his eyes, remembering all too clearly Dean's suggestion for checking on Mrs. Thompson.
"How? You got a stick on you?" he asked.
Dean narrowed his eyes. "You think you're funny, don't you?"
Sam looked back at Wallace, jerking in surprise and nearly shoving Dean from his balanced perch when he saw the man's eyes were open and staring at him. He heard Dean utter a sonuvabitch beneath his breath.
"Mr., uh…. Wallace?" Sam said, realizing belatedly that he didn't know the man's full name. "We're, uh, we're leaving now, okay?"
Wallace said nothing. His mouth gaped, his eyes stared, his hands clutched at air.
"Okay, so…Colin'll probably be back soon," Sam continued, unnerved by the man's unblinking stare. "Um…."
Dean tugged on Sam's sleeve. "We should go."
"Right, okay." Sam nodded once, tossing an awkward wave at the old man before following his brother down the stairs.
Facing Dean in the cool of the kitchen, Sam matched his brother's raised eyebrows.
"So…that was creepy," Dean said, zipping up his coat.
"Told you," Sam shivered. "Crazy town."
"Let's get this job done and get the hell outta here," Dean pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up.
"We're going to have to hide your face more if we go into that diner," Sam frowned, glancing around. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his coat and found the ski mask he'd been wearing earlier crumpled up inside along with his S.W.A.T. team gloves.
"Why? I've already been there once," Dean said.
"Oh," Sam took a breath, feeling the need to brace himself for more than the cold when he opened the door. "Then just wear this. And keep your hood up. No need to give anyone a good look at you or anything."
"Deny them all this?" Dean waved a hand at his pale, battered countenance. He pulled the ski mask over his head, rolling the face plate up so that it ended up acting as a skull cap. "That's just not fair."
Sam rolled his eyes and opened the door.
The cold was a living thing.
Dean was fairly certain he saw a frozen hand reach out and wrap around him, working greedy fingers into the seams and linings of his coat to sap whatever warmth and energy the hours inside the cabin had infused into him.
He tried not to gasp, but it was automatic. The sharp intake of breath immediately turned into a cough that came close to doubling him over as it raked hot fingers along his lungs. He didn't miss Sam's worried glance, and covered it by stepping forward ahead of his long-legged brother.
"I'll grab the bag," Dean said as they headed away from the cabin.
The snow-covered land insulated sound, the quiet amplifying his voice and tossing it around the thicket of trees like a hacky sack.
"What bag?" Sam asked, pulling his own hood up around his ears, having given the only ski mask to Dean. The other one, Dean knew, had been taken by the lake.
Dean shot him a look, finding it necessary to push the hood back a bit to see Sam. The extra material of the sweatshirt stuck out from either side of his head sufficiently that if he used it to his advantage, he could definitely keep his face in shadows.
"You don't think I came all this way without back-up, did you?"
"Weapons?" Sam asked, sounding surprised.
"Hell yeah, weapons," Dean replied, turning, his boots crunching the snow. "Come to think of it, where's your gun?"
"It's…." Sam stopped, looking confused. He straightened, glancing back toward the cabin, then pivoted and shot eyes naked with memory toward the lake.
Dean followed his gaze, seeing the chaotic pattern of frantic footsteps and beaten tracks in the snow leading to and from the lake as evidence of what had transpired the night before. Stumbling steps and staggered drag lines clearly marked where Sam had hauled Dean, soaked and freezing, back to the warmth of the cabin.
"Sam?" Dean prodded gently.
"I…I had to use it," Sam said, his voice quavering slightly. He swallowed and looked back at Dean. "I had to use it to get you out of the ice."
Dean rolled his lips against his teeth, watching his brother very closely for a moment.
"What?" Sam asked finally. His mouth ticked up in a young, nervous smile, but Dean saw that it stopped just beneath his eyes.
And with that question, Dean felt the shift. He was no longer the one in need of rescue; he could step back into the place where he was most comfortable: watching out for Sam.
"C'mon," he said, clapping a hand on Sam's shoulder. "Let's go find it."
"I don't know what happened to it," Sam confessed, turning and following Dean, close enough that their insulated shoulders bounced off of each other. "I don't even remember dropping it."
"I'm willing to bet it's pretty close to the water," Dean said.
The walk had seemed impossible last night; it surprised him how quickly they reached the ice-heavy lake. Dean reached up and rubbed absentmindedly at his shoulder. In an almost instinctive movement, he looked up over Sam's head, remembering the looming specter of the Reaper peering down at him out of the darkness.
"There," Sam was saying. Dean pulled his focus back to his brother. "I shot the water right about there to break the ice."
Dean swallowed a sudden flash of nausea, remembering the crashes of thunder echoing around him as he fought to breathe.
"Okay, so…," he cast about with his eyes. "You broke the ice, dropped the gun so you could reach in and—"
"Found it!" Sam called out, moving past Dean to a small mound of snow just off the edge of the lake. He bent to retrieve the gun, brushing the barrel free of snow and glanced up. Dean saw his eyes hit on something down the length of the lake.
"Think that's where they're holding the memorial?" Sam asked, straightening.
Dean turned and peered down the lake to where a couple of people were assembling a raised platform. It was far enough away that the people looked like GI Joe figures and they couldn't hear anything that might've been said.
"That'd be my guess."
He heard Sam take a breath. "Food first."
Dean nodded. "And coffee," he amended. "Lots and lots of coffee."
"Y'know, we can't just walk into that place with a bag full of weapons, Dean."
Dean scowled at his brother and made his way back to where he'd left the duffle at the base of the tree outside the cabin. He felt another cough climb its way up his chest; he knew he needed to keep this under control.
I'd give my right arm for a glass of water right about now. Or some whiskey.
"I mean it," Sam stressed. "This town is—"
"Crazy," Dean interrupted. "I heard you the first seven times."
"I'm just saying…no reason to fuel the fire."
Dean kicked snow off of the bag, crouching down and fumbling with the zipper until he opened it. He glanced up at Sam, squinting as the sun that managed to penetrate the trees shot down around his brother like pillars of light. Sam was gingerly touching the bruises around his eye and Dean felt a surge of heated anger in his chest.
"Fine," he conceded. "One weapon each. I'll stash the bag here for later."
Sam nodded, checking the Beretta's clip. "You bring ammo? I'm down four."
Dean shook his head. "If you have to use it, make each shot count."
He pulled his knife from the duffle and caught his breath as he lifted his layers of clothes, exposing his back to the elements, and slid the blade encased in its hard, leather sheath into his waistband at the small of his back. Clearing his throat, he zipped the bag closed, then glanced toward the cabin.
"How much do you trust this Colin guy?" he asked his brother.
Sam lifted a shoulder. "How much do we trust anyone?"
"Good point," Dean nodded. He looked over his shoulder at a cluster of trees. "I'll bury the bag here. We'll come back for it later."
They were quiet as they headed toward the diner. The cold sucked the sound from around them, making their synchronized footfalls reverberate against the trees. Finally giving in to the insistent demand of his lungs, Dean coughed into the crook of his elbow, feeling the catch in his chest.
"We going to have to do something about that," Sam declared.
"How's your head?" Dean deflected.
"I'll be fine."
"So will I."
"I'm not the one that took the polar bear plunge, Dean," Sam glanced at him.
"I get it," Dean snapped. "You're worried. Let's just move on, okay?"
Sam took a breath as they approached the parking lot. "I just hope Paul Bunyan and his friends aren't there."
"They the ones that jumped you?"
Sam nodded, his fingers finding his bruised eye.
Dean rolled his shoulders back, grabbing the door handle. "In that case…I hope they are."
The diner was quiet, but the heat wrapped around them and Dean felt his cheeks tingle as the skin soaked in the warmth. Stomping the snow from their boots, they pulled off their gloves. Sam reached up to push his hood back and Dean mirrored his action, catching himself just in time. He pulled the ski mask from his head instead, keeping his hood in place.
"I smell coffee," he almost groaned, leading the way through the entrance alcove and into the main room.
The booths and tables were empty. One man sat with his back to them at the bar; Dean heard the rustle of newspaper. The low hum of a radio could be heard now that they were further inside and from behind the swinging door Dean picked up the sounds of a kitchen.
"Cooper?" Sam called out quietly.
The man half-turned, his profile displaying frank surprise. "Hey, there, kid!"
Sam moved past Dean and crossed to the counter. "You sleep here or something?"
Cooper turned the rest of the way around, taking Dean in with a quick sweep of sharp eyes. "As a matter of fact, I did. Mandy has an apartment in the back. Makes her husband sleep there when he's not stepping-to."
Dean cleared his throat, trying to keep himself from lustfully eyeing the mug of coffee he saw just beyond Cooper's fingertips.
"You found each other, then?"
Sam nodded, glancing over at Dean. "Didn't quite make it to town, though."
Dean saw Cooper frown as he peered more closely at Sam's face. "You walk into a tree, kid?"
"No," Dean snapped, hunger getting the better of him. "Couple of fine, upstanding Lethe citizen's jumped him near that cabin out by the lake."
Cooper's eyes widened for a moment, then narrowed with suspicion. "Marshall?"
Sam lifted a shoulder. "They didn't stop to introduce themselves first."
"Dammit," Cooper cursed, rubbing his slim-fingered hand across his mouth, a day's growth of white whiskers rubbing against his palm with a soft rasp. "You hungry?"
Their nods were in unison and enthusiastic.
"Sit down," Cooper nodded toward two stools. "I'll find Mandy."
Cooper stood and Dean slid onto the stool next to the one he'd vacated. The cough he'd been suppressing took advantage of his distraction and burst forth with surprising ferocity. His eyes watered, and he pressed a hand to his chest in an effort to keep his ribs from breaking.
"Son, you sound like a dying seal," Cooper frowned, pushing the swinging door open and calling to Mandy. "Got some hungry travelers here."
Dean could hear the surprisingly full-bodied voice of the woman he'd met the night before calling back that she'd have food out in a jiffy. Cooper came back toward them, grabbing two coffee mugs on his way. When he set the mug in front of Dean and filled it with steaming coffee from the carafe behind him, Dean was tempted to kiss him.
"Black, right?" Cooper asked.
"Right." Dean nodded, sipping the steaming beverage and sighing as he felt the liquid warmth spill down inside of him.
"You?" Cooper asked Sam.
"He likes a little coffee with his cream and sugar," Dean teased, draining his mug and setting it down for more. He cleared his throat, watching as Sam first scowled at him, then nodded reluctantly to Cooper that Dean was right.
"I don't remember you sounding like that when you came in last night," Cooper said, eyeing Dean.
"He fell in the lake," Sam interjected.
"You what?" Cooper exclaimed.
"It's a long story," Dean sighed. "But…uh, yeah. I fell through the ice."
Cooper's eyes bounced between them, his head tilting as if he could pick up on words left unsaid. "I've got something back at my office that could help that cough."
"Thought you were the Medical Examiner," Dean replied.
"So…don't you usually deal with…y'know…dead people?"
Cooper arched a wild eyebrow, his heavily-lined lips pursing with amusement. "In a town this size, you need to multi-task. I'm also trained in internal medicine."
Dean's eyes caught on the swinging door leading from the kitchen. "That's handy," he commented dryly, shoving his hood back away from his face. "You get them on either side of the great divide. Win win."
Cooper chuckled while Sam drove a warning elbow into his side. Dean knew his brother didn't like that he wasn't disguising himself, but he was close enough to Cooper now that the man had already gotten a good look at his face. He figured it wouldn't matter now.
Dean ignored any other warning glances from Sam as Mandy slid two plates of potatoes, eggs, bacon, and toast in front of them. He'd finished the bacon before Sam had unwrapped the paper napkin from around his silverware.
"You still headed into town for supplies?" Cooper asked, leaning against the other side of the bar and sipping his coffee.
Dean felt his body settling happily as he shoveled the potatoes into his mouth. He let Sam answer for both of them.
"Unless you can spare your truck and winch," Sam answered around a mouthful of food.
Mandy shot an anxious glance at Cooper, but the M.E. missed it. Dean wasn't surprised; the woman's diminutive stature dictated that one needed to be looking directly at her to catch subtle glances and warnings.
"You can't leave town before the memorial," Mandy declared when Cooper didn't look her way.
"I'm not going anywhere," Cooper said quietly, his eyes on Sam, not Mandy. "I made a promise."
Dean slid his eyes to the side. He caught Sam's quick glance and picked up on the non-verbal cue to kick-start the hunt. Since they were young, they'd been able to roll with each other's rhythm when dealing with strangers—even better than John. There was a cadence to their approach that belied the differences of their views of the world.
"So, Sammy tells me that your Sheriff is talking at this memorial thing," Dean began. "Did he know the woman who died?"
Cooper frowned, looking into the dregs of his coffee cup as if an answer might leap out at him. "I don't believe anyone did."
"Heard a report on the radio that said she was left behind when the old town was flooded," Dean pressed, using the edges of his toast to clean the remnants of eggs from his plate.
Cooper looked down at Mandy. Her large eyes stared back unblinking and Dean felt a chill, grateful that it wasn't him she was stripping bare this time.
"Don't believe the stuff you hear on the radio or read in papers about this situation, boys," Cooper said, his voice almost stern. "There's a lot of sensationalism going on. And there's not many who live here now that lived in Old Lethe."
"Still," Sam shrugged, pushing his empty plate back. "From what I overheard in here yesterday afternoon…sounds like a pretty bizarre situation. What with the Mayor's death and all. It's gotta be tough for you guys."
Dean coughed into his shoulder, trying to keep his eyes on Cooper. He could tell the man was choosing his words carefully; there was something he didn't want to say, but at the same time, Dean got the sense that the M.E. was looking for help.
Or an escape.
"Not everyone was on board with the idea of relocating the town to turn it into a…vacation spot." Cooper turned away and grabbed a spare carafe of coffee, refilling the mugs.
Mandy made her way around the end of the bar and climbed up onto the stool next to Dean's, quietly listening. And, Dean suspected, keeping Cooper honest.
"There were three guys who started it, right?" Sam asked. "Jones, Tolliver, and Mead?"
Cooper looked at him quickly. "Where'd you hear that?"
"The guy who stopped Marshall and his friends from pounding on me," Sam said, leaning forward, his elbows propped on the edge of the bar.
Dean felt his brother warming to the topic; Sam was in his element, drawing the man closer, reminding him that he'd been wounded by people in this town, innocently asking for more information. There were certain things Sam was just very, very good at.
Cooper, properly chagrined as Sam had wanted him to be, rubbed his mouth again. "Yeah, those are the three guys who started us down this path," Cooper nodded. "But enough of us went willingly that they can't be blamed for—"
He stopped suddenly.
Sam smiled encouragingly. "Blamed for what? Sounds like you have a great place here. I mean, just the way you guys are trying to protect it from all of the media attention is admirable. What would anyone want to blame them for?"
Cooper looked at Sam with an expression that made him drop his smile like it was something that bit him. Dean straightened, his shoulders squaring as the hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention.
"Son, the less you know about this town the better," Cooper said quietly. "I suggest you and your brother get the supplies you need to get your car out and be on your way."
Dean ran a tongue over his bottom lip and glanced at Sam. He saw in his brother's expression a chance to leave this behind them, no harm, no foul. And for a moment, he wavered.
Maybe he was wrong. Maybe this hunt wasn't for them. Maybe they could just…go.
"One of these days," Mandy interjected, her voice weighted with secrets, "the truth is going to break through the edge of these trees and everyone touched will pay a price."
Dean kept his eyes on Sam, saw the reluctant regret slide across his brother's face. They couldn't walk away. He opened his mouth to tell Cooper how they could help when a cough took him by surprise, shaking through him and blurring his vision as he tried to balance his intake of air.
When he could breathe again, he looked up and around; three pairs of eyes were trained on him.
"You got a lozenge?" he asked helplessly.
"You sound like you're working on pneumonia," Cooper declared. "How'd you end up in the lake again?"
Dean shot a warning glance at Sam. "Long story," he reiterated. "Listen, if you're heading into town for that memorial, maybe we could hitch a ride? Get that shovel?"
Sam nodded in agreement. He was no more eager to walk through the cold than Dean was. Cooper looked over at Mandy, who shrugged in return.
"You know as well as I do anyone who'd come by now would find another way to get into town if they really wanted to," Mandy told him. "You're not doing anyone any good hanging out here, Coop. 'Sides. I got a tough husband back there," she nodded toward the kitchen, "and I'm not afraid to use him."
Cooper looked down, his frown digging even deeper furrows into his lined face. He nodded reluctantly and looked back at Sam and Dean.
"You need anything else?"
The brothers shook their heads in unison.
"All right then," the M.E. sighed. "Let's go."
Dean slid from his stool and reached into his pocket for cash, belatedly realizing he had left everything back in the Impala. He looked at Sam who was doing the same thing.
"Uh, Mandy," Dean started.
Mandy swiveled on the stool, looking from him to Sam. "Don't worry about it," she said. "You two look like you needed hot meal. Tell you what; wash some dishes for me later to make up for it."
Dean grinned. "You got it."
To his amazement, the woman blushed. Her features softened and her eyes twinkled. He pulled up his hood, winking at her as he turned away. He caught Sam's eye-roll as Mandy whispered behind them, "And who could say no to that, I ask you?"
Dean tried not to think too much about the cold as they made their way from the diner to Cooper's truck. He climbed into the back jump seat in the extended-cab as Sam settled his longer legs in the front. Cooper cranked the heat up the moment the truck rumbled to life.
"What did Mandy mean about secrets?" Sam asked as soon as Cooper shifted into reverse.
Dean had to hand it to his brother; Sam was going to get to the bottom of this hunt in record time.
Cooper scowled. "Kid," he muttered, turning the steering wheel full circle with the flat of his hand. "Someone had to know that woman. She wasn't a tourist. And she'd been in that water for a number of years, based on her remains."
"How'd you identify her?" Dean asked. "I thought those kinds of things took awhile."
Sam looked over his shoulder at him, eyebrows up.
"What? I read," Dean replied. "CSI is totally misleading."
Sam's mouth quirked down a small grin.
"It usually does. But…," Cooper corrected a slight fishtail on the snow, "we had her dental records on file."
"So, she used to live in Lethe?" Sam asked.
"Old Lethe," Cooper corrected. "I was surprised myself. I never met the old physician. I took over the job about a year before they made the decision to blow the dam. Used to be a real nice place."
"It's not anymore?" Dean asked.
"It's…nice. Just…," Cooper slowed as they crossed over a cattle guard and pulled onto a nearly-deserted main street of New Lethe. "…exclusive."
Dean looked through the small back window at the town everyone was intent on protecting. It looked like a mixture of a Hollywood movie set and a boutique spa. The main road was cobblestone, sending the passengers in Cooper's truck bouncing and jostling against the window and edges of the bench seat. The sidewalks were extra wide and had paths marked specifically for bikes. Storefronts had large windows with store names painted in coordinated colors.
He saw several restaurants and clothing shops, a library, small police station, an organic grocery store, a general store, and a movie theater with three screens. It was quaint, quiet, and it gave him chills.
Cooper turned right at the edge of a white clapboard building with the symbol of a prescription painted on the window. It was one building down from the police station.
"What's that place between you and the police station?" Dean asked.
"That's the county building," Cooper replied. "We have a pretty intricate basement access system to get from building to building. And all parking is in back lots—keeps the streets cleaner and safer."
"Uh-huh," Sam and Dean replied together.
"No hospital?" Sam asked, leaning forward and peering around the corner. "Churches? Schools?"
"There's an emergency clinic on the lake, and my office. Anything we can't treat we airlift to Madison. Two churches—Baptists and Catholics. Up on the hill there," Cooper tipped his head to the left. "One school, back up thataway. Kindergarten through 12th grade, one building."
"Cozy," Dean remarked.
"Not a lot of school-aged kids in a resort town like this," Cooper told them. "Most just come in for the summer. Or did before the lake dropped. All the residential houses are to the West and the vacation cottages are to the East, toward Lethe Lake."
He pulled to a stop in a small parking lot graced by only two other cars. They climbed from the truck and Dean immediately heard the dull hum of voices in the distance. Turned around by his ride into town, he rotated, trying to get his bearings as to where the memorial was being held. He saw a growing crowd of people to his left, down around the curve of a crystallized lake.
"Come on in," Cooper said. "I'll get you something for that cough."
Dean nodded and joined Sam behind the M.E. As they entered the back of his office, the unmistakable scent of formaldehyde wrapped around them. Sam pulled his collar over his nose and Dean coughed into the crook of his arm.
"Yeah, sorry about that," Cooper said, flicking on lights as he led them further into the office. The smell abated as they continued further. "The back entrance is right above the morgue and there's not a lot of ventilation. Unfortunately. Always get a pretty big whiff when you first come in."
Dean raised his eyebrows at Sam who simply shook his head in a don't go there warning.
"Now," Cooper said to Dean, motioning to an exam table. "Go ahead and get out of those coats."
"Whoa, wait," Dean lifted his hands in warning. "I just need something to help my cough is all."
"I need to listen to your lungs, make sure we're not dealing with something more serious," Cooper pointed out.
"No offence, but," Dean shook his head, taking a step back. "I've been taking care of myself for a long time. I think I'd know if it was worse than a cough."
Sam looked away, not saying anything. Cooper tilted his head.
"Is this your way of saying you don't trust me?" Cooper asked.
Dean swallowed, unwilling to punctuate his resistance with another cough that would indicate he was sicker than he'd admit.
"Fine." Cooper nodded, pushing his lips out in reluctance. "I've got something here that will suppress that cough. But if you start having pain in your chest, or feel like you can't breathe, you need to get help right away, agreed?"
"You bet," Dean nodded.
"How about you?" Cooper looked at Sam.
"I'm not coughing," Sam replied, blinking innocently.
"How's your head? That eye?"
"Not great, but I've had worse," Sam said.
Cooper arched an eyebrow. "You got anything against ibuprofen?"
"No," Sam shook his head. "I'm a big fan, actually."
"Mmhmm," Cooper narrowed his eyes at them, then reached behind the door for a key. "You two wait here. I'll be back."
The moment Cooper was out of earshot, the brothers turned to each other.
"You should have let him examine you," Sam declared.
"He's got records from the previous doctor here," Dean stated at the same time.
"What?" they echoed. Dean jutted his chin out in a really? gesture.
Sam lifted a hand. "You first."
"We need to look at those records," Dean stated.
"Huh?" Sam asked. "Records? What records?"
"Where've you been, man?" Dean turned his hands out from his side in question. "Body? Drowning Mayor? Hunt?"
"I know, Dean, but," Sam darted his eyes out through the opened door. "He said you could have pneumonia."
Dean waved him off. "I'm fine. Listen, the sooner we figure out whose spirit we're dealing with here, the sooner we can leave. Agreed?"
Sam folded his lips together, his eyes pouting. "Fine."
"Okay, so if they cremated the remains before the Mayor went belly up, it can't be her."
"Unless they didn't get everything," Sam pointed out. "I mean, they said she floated up from the lake, right? Could be some hair or something still down there."
"Good point," Dean nodded. "I think we need to see those files. Find out where she might've lived in Old Lethe."
"What about the Mayor?" Sam asked. "I mean, Cooper said he drowned, but…what is his connection to the woman?"
"Other than being one of the reasons her town was flooded you mean?"
Sam looked at him, his eyes troubled. "Well, if that's the reason, there's at least two more people in danger, man."
Dean rubbed at the back of his neck. His clothes were beginning to weigh on him, rubbing on too-sensitive skin. His ribs were beginning to ache from holding back the hacking cough that threatened to overpower him at every turn. He cleared his throat, breathing shallowly.
"Right," Dean moved over to the doorway, peering out. The hall was still empty. "One is the Sheriff, right? Mead?"
"Who's the other guy?"
"Somebody named Tolliver," Sam said. "No idea."
Dean glanced back at him. "I think we need to tell Cooper."
"Tell him what?"
"No, Dean." Sam's face was set.
"Dude, if we're going to get this information, in a town like this, we're gonna need someone on the inside."
Sam took a step forward, slicing a hand through the air in a declaration. "No, Dean. We told Ronald, remember? And it got him killed."
Dean felt himself go cold inside then spike hot in reaction to Sam's words. He clenched his jaw, watching as Sam took a step back.
"The shifter never touched him," Dean reminded his brother, hearing the chill in his voice. "And he was there, in that bank, because we weren't honest with him."
Sam swallowed. "He's still dead," he said defiantly, as if he knew he wasn't being fair but purposely poked at Dean's resolve anyway.
Dean held his brother's eyes, feeling a flooding backlog of emotions surge forward. His physical defenses were low and he knew that tended to thin out his normally impenetrable walls, but for a moment he didn't care. They were alone in this fight—alone and weakened and without chance of rescue. He thought back to the hunt he'd told Sam about—the night with the werewolf in the basement.
Dad had called for reinforcements. He'd had a back-up plan. Aside from Bobby, Dean didn't know anyone they could call to fill in this void. Ellen, maybe. But even then, how could he just walk away? Just leave town knowing there was a spirit seeking vengeance?
If nothing else, he was a hunter. He had a job to do. But he couldn't push to get the job done while fighting Sam at every turn. He just didn't have enough left in him.
He felt the fire drain from his eyes with that realization, watched Sam see it happen. His face settled into a blank mask and he saw Sam's shoulders square up in reaction.
"What do you want to do, Sam?"
He heard the surrender in his words, felt himself giving in, letting go of the grip of control he'd fought for just hours ago on the floor of the cabin.
Sam stared at him, his normally eloquent eyes momentarily unreadable. His nostrils flared as if working to keep his cool, keep emotion at bay. He was breathing faster than normal, and Dean could see his fingers clenching and unclenching in the periphery of his glance.
"Found it," Cooper called as he approached the front office once more.
His sudden voice caused Dean to jerk, so intent had his focus been on Sam's next words. He didn't look away from his brother.
"Had to go down to the storeroom, but I found—" Cooper turned the corner, stopping when he saw the brothers standing in a face-off. "—it."
"Cooper," Sam said, his voice like gravel. "We need to talk."
The shot of cough syrup that Cooper had given Dean seemed to be working. Sam noticed that his brother wasn't clearing his throat every two seconds in an effort to keep that bone-rattling cough at bay. The ibuprofen Cooper had given Sam was staving off his headache nicely.
But the M.E. looked awful.
"And you knew nothing about all of this ghost hunter stuff going in New Lethe when you headed our way?" Cooper was asking, his elbows on his desk, his face in his hands.
"No, sir," Dean replied. "I know all of this is a little hard to believe, but—"
"A little?" Cooper brought his head up. "Son, I deal in fact. Incontrovertible proof. Science. Not…ghouls and ghosties."
"We're not talking about ghouls," Dean replied. "Spirits are—"
"Dean," Sam said softly, putting a hand on his brother's arm to quiet him. "Cooper, I can imagine this is all a bit…weird. Especially with the so-called ghost hunters you've been trying to keep out of your town."
Dean slouched down on top of a short filing cabinet, his hands hanging between his knees, watching Cooper. Sam continued.
"But we've been doing this our whole lives. And we have seen enough to have incontrovertible proof that spirits exist."
"And that they go around seeking revenge like in some…," Cooper waved his hands in the air, "…Stephen King novel?"
"Sometimes, yeah," Dean replied. "The newspaper guy that Sam was talking about? He's actually kinda on the right track. I mean, he gives real hunters a bad name, but…he has a point."
Cooper shook his head. "I just…I don't believe it." He leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. "I won't."
Sam pulled his lower lip into his mouth, trying to pick the direction that would convince this man that they weren't full of shit and needed his help. He didn't want to be wrong in sharing the truth with the Medical Examiner. He didn't want to be wrong in trusting Dean's instincts.
"You examined Mayor Jones, right?"
Cooper looked up at him. "Yes."
"And you concluded, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he drowned."
Cooper frowned. "Yes. His lungs were full of water."
"Was it fluid?" Dean asked, picking up on Sam's track. "Like if he had, say, pneumonia?"
Cooper pulled away from Dean slightly, though Dean hadn't moved from his perch on the filing cabinet.
"Or maybe tap water?" Sam pressed. "Maybe someone had shoved his face in the sink and positioned the body?"
"No…." Cooper shook his head slowly, his gaze turning inward, mental heels digging in.
"It was lake water, wasn't it?" Dean asked quietly. "And that's why you're hung up on blame. You don't know the whole story, but you know there's a story there."
Cooper pressed his lips out as if he were sucking the marrow from his next words; his voice was rough as he allowed each one to fall into the tension-heavy air.
"There were…rumors. Whispered conversations. Gossip, really. All about how the dam had been blown before the final sweep of the town was completed because The Big Three rushed the deadline."
"The Big Three?" Dean asked.
Cooper glanced at him. "Mead, Tolliver, and Jones."
"What did you think about these rumors?" Sam asked.
"Not much," Cooper sighed. "Mainly because they started after Judge McAvoy died and no one could find this lock box of cash he supposedly had. People started saying it was still back in his house in Old Lethe."
"Is that what the kids were looking for when they found the body?" Sam guessed.
Cooper nodded. "Trying to save the town—and get their father's attention I suspect."
"And you're sure no one knew the woman," Dean circled back. "No connections with any of The Big Three? Even in her medical records?"
Cooper shook his head. "Nothing that jumped out at me."
"Who still lives in Lethe that might remember someone from the old town?" Dean asked.
"Maybe…Tolliver? He was Judge McAvoy's assistant. Mead came on as sheriff about the same time I moved to town. The former Sheriff had a stroke."
Sam nodded. "Yeah, we know."
Cooper looked up at that, but said nothing. "A lot of the people from the old town took the money for their property and moved somewhere else. I can only think of maybe a dozen or so that were here before I came and stayed after New Lethe was built."
Sam looked over at his brother, noting the sag in Dean's shoulders, the shadows under his eyes. The second wind that had carried Dean this far was fading. They needed to think of what to do next and act on it before that fire that drove his brother was extinguished and he collapsed under the weighted curse of his own humanity.
"Let's just…talk rhetorically for a minute," Sam tried, still looking at Dean. "Say there are such things as spirits, for the sake of argument. The only way to stop them is to burn the bones."
Cooper looked almost triumphant. "Well, you've just talked yourself into a corner then because we burned the remains before Mayor Jones drowned."
"You burned what you found," Dean pointed out. "But you don't know if you burned everything."
"Everything?" Cooper frowned.
"A spirit could hold onto any little bit of their physical self—even a small piece of hair," Dean informed him.
"So what you're saying is, if I believe you, that means we have to go down to where the body was found and…search for hair?"
The brothers nodded.
"All just to prove that a ghost drowned Jones with lake water?"
Sam lifted a shoulder. "You said you deal with fact. Does anyone have any leads on who in this town might've wanted to kill Mayor Jones?"
Cooper dropped his face in his hands once more.
"Cooper," Dean said after a few moments of silence. "It's, uh…, it's also possible that your friends could be in trouble."
"My friends?" Cooper asked without lifting his head.
"Mead and Tolliver," Sam clarified. "We need to—"
"Protect them from a spirit? How the hell are we supposed to do that?" Cooper looked up at the brothers, his face a picture of disbelief. "It's been over a week since we buried Jones. Wouldn't this so-called spirit have attacked by now?"
Dean cleared his throat and Sam looked over quickly. His brother was focused on Cooper, his face grim, serious, but Sam could see a fine sheen of sweat gathering at his temples.
"Listen," Dean said, weariness making his voice sharp. "Either you believe us, or you don't. We can help you, but not if you fight us. And honestly? I'm too damn tired to try to convince you."
Cooper stared at him for a long moment. Sam's eyes darted between the M.E. and his brother, waiting.
"I'm sorry, boys," Cooper shook his head, his gaze sliding slowly to his desk. "I just don't buy it. No offense, but…it's just too crazy."
Sam shot a pre-emptive warning look at his brother, but saw that Dean wasn't looking at him or Cooper. He'd dropped his eyes to his lap and was twisting his silver ring around his finger as he often did when lost in thought.
"Cooper," Sam said, rubbing his hands along the sides of his coat. "If we promise not to mention spirits, would you help us poke around a bit more?"
"Why would you want to?" Cooper challenged. "Why not just wait until I can get your car out and leave?"
"Believe me, I'd love to," Sam confessed, glancing once more at his brother. "But—"
"But," Dean broke in looking at Cooper. "Sometimes things are true whether you believe them or not. And we can't just walk away."
Sam nodded once in agreement.
Cooper pursed his lips, his bright eyes taking them in. "What do you want to do?"
"Mead's speaking at the memorial in a little bit, right?" Sam asked.
"You know where Tolliver is? Would he be there?"
Cooper tipped his hands up in a shrug. "Either there or at his office."
"We want to talk to them," Sam said. "Find out what they know about this woman."
Cooper dragged a hand down his face. "If they knew anything about Josephine Sanderson, they would have said something by now."
Sam saw Dean bring his chin up. "Say that again?"
"They would have said something—"
"No, no…what did you say her name was?"
Cooper lifted an eyebrow. "Josephine Sanderson."
"What are you thinking?" Sam asked him, watching as Dean's eyes darted in thought, his brows pulled close over the bridge of his nose.
"Something…. Can't put my finger on it," Dean muttered, his voice distracted as he searched his memory.
"Didn't the radio report have her name?" Sam asked, confused.
"Yeah," Dean nodded, shaking his head helplessly. "Yeah, it did. Just…something…. Eh, forget it. It'll come to me." Dean looked over at Sam. "You go with Cooper to the memorial and talk to Mead. I'll check out Tolliver's office."
"Dean—" Sam started to protest.
"Divide and conquer, Sam," Dean pressed. "Besides," he pulled the hood up, shadowing his face, "like you said, there'll be a lot of people at the memorial."
Sam took a breath. "Right. Don't suppose your cell phone still works?"
Dean took his phone from the pocket of his jacket. "Dead. Phones don't like icy lakes, I guess."
"Was afraid of that," Sam muttered. "Okay, we go, we see what we can find out, we meet back here in…two hours?"
"Works for me. Cooper?"
"I still say this is crazy," Cooper said, following the brothers out of the office and turning off the lights. "But I can't allow a murderer to go free. Even a dead one."
Continued in Part 3B here: http://gaelicspirit.livejournal.com/108911.html