Chapter 1: Earth Stood Hard as Iron
Dean kicked the motel room door open with his foot, his arms full of steaming take-out bags. A gust of cold November night air followed him as Sam hurriedly cleared his laptop off the room's rickety table so his brother could deposit their evening repast on its scratched surface.
"Ok, so what did Bobby have for us?" Dean demanded as he plonked himself down on one of the kitchen chairs, stretching out his long legs and rummaging in the bags for his mega cholesterol loaded burger and double strength expresso. Sam sighed.
"Dean, we just finished one job, can't we just have a couple of days breathing space before rushing off to the next one?"
"Breathing space? Doin' what exactly Sammy?"
"Oh I don't know, Dean. Just not fighting anything for a change…You know, we could just hang somewhere, play some pool maybe; do something normal, ordinary."
Silence. Dean stared at nothing, the green glints in his hazel eyes looking suddenly old and cold. Sam shivered slightly at the sight.
Ordinary. Right. Because we Winchesters are just so good at ordinary aren't we. What am I thinking?
Sam let his gaze slide away from his brother's set face and reached for his food. Then he heard Dean echo his own earlier sigh.
"Look Sammy, I know the apocalypse is over, but there is still plenty of evil out there, and if we take a break, people die. They die and I can't live with that. If you want to opt out for a while, that's fine with me, really it is. Go check in with Bobby for a bit or something; go to Stanford and visit some of your old college buddies - but I can't stop. I just can't."
Sam looked up at this, took in the weary slump of Dean's shoulders, noted again the pallor of his brother's skin and the dark shadows under his eyes, and knew that he too must look just as rough. The brothers had been working to Dean's hectically driven schedule for over three solid months, ever since Lucifer was defeated and the angels had left. It seemed that stopping the apocalypse had brought no rewards for the Winchester brothers, only more work.
What had happened to the promise of rest when we were done? Sam wondered, bitterly.
All the demons let loose when Lucifer raised his army were still around, and the evil ragtag that rode on the shitty tails of that army were still on Earth, raging unchecked like some sort of mediaeval plague. The surviving hunters were busier than ever, dealing with random poltergeists, angry spirits and all manner of monsters, and even though Death and the other Horsemen were no longer roaming the Earth, the aftermath of their deeds in those few short months that they had been around still lived on. So now the Winchesters were headed pell-mell towards another not so merry Christmas season and the death of another year. Which was great, just great.
"Look man, you know I don't want to take off and go to Bobby's. I wouldn't leave you alone like that. Just forget it." Sam took a bite of his nondescript salad-y something (he didn't have the energy to look too closely to check what it was supposed to be) and pulled open his laptop again, balancing it precariously on his not inconsiderably muscular thighs. "Ok, this is what we've got – some's from Bobby and the rest is from some research I did."
He went through the highlighted list, Dean grunting occasional comments through large mouthfuls of anonymous-animal burger. Part way down the list and still nothing was floating Dean's boat, blowing up his skirt, whatever.
"Possible poltergeist in Queens, ganked two victims so far, a 45 year old accountant and his 21 year old mistress."
Dean shook his head, waving the remains of the burger in emphasis. "Nah on two counts – one - cities, dude – and two - it was probably his pissed off wife." Sam nodded agreement, moved on.
"How about this one. Copper Harbour, Michigan. Three hikers gone missing since the beginning of November, all in the same stretch of forest, all turned up dead of hypothermia even though the snow season has been late starting this year, probably due to Al Gore's climate change." Sam saw he'd finally snagged Dean's attention, and smiled inwardly.
"Hikers and hypothermia?" His big brother was frowning, considering, weighing it up. "No camping, right though, Sammy?"
"Nope, plenty of nice comfortable motels in the area. No tents in the wilderness required. Oh and get this. Just a few miles south of Copper Harbour is a ghost town called Delaware. Old mining town abandoned in the early 1900s."
Sam almost laughed out loud as Dean's face lit up. "Ghost town eh? Neat!"
"Yeah, good times…" Sam smiled at the rare glimpse of a younger, less careworn Dean.
Dean had known Sam was right, even as he was telling the younger Winchester no. They did both need a rest; a real holiday from the day to day grind of fighting evil, but he had also been almost painfully honest with Sam when he'd said he couldn't stop.
After all, if Dean Winchester were to stop fighting, cease hunting, just who would he be? What would be the purpose of Dean Winchester's continued existence then? He wasn't stupid; he recognised the problem facing him was the same as faced every soldier returning home after a long, hard fought, ugly war. He and Sam had seen things, done things, that no civilian could even imagine. And it left scars. It was easier to carry on, to stay in the jungle, fighting skirmishes even though the war was over. For him, there really was no choice. He had never known any other life. The vague happy memories of a four year old didn't hold much weight when balanced against twenty seven odd years of hunting.
If he was to stop now, allowing innocent people to die, what would have been the point of putting Lucifer back in his box? What use would it have been to have fought demons and angels alike, to have lost all those friends (God, how he missed that crazy stick-up-the-ass Cas…where was he now?), only to allow all those evil sons of bitches still out there a free rein to have a pop at all those vulnerable, ignorant civilians?
No, for him retiring wasn't an option, but his kid brother, now that was different. Dean thought that Sam might have a chance of picking up some threads of normality, having left this life once before and made a success of being an extraordinary person living an ordinary life, at least until Dean had come along and fucked it up for him by dragging him back into this warped existence. Kid brother. Dean looked at Sam's broad shoulders and shaggy hair as he hunched his great bulk uncomfortably over the laptop and thought, Who am I kidding? He's a grown man now, I can't protect him any more. But he looks so tired, so worn down by everything.
So Dean made the offer of a way out, even though deep down he was more than half hoping Sam would refuse. In spite of everything, or perhaps because of everything, they still made one hell of a team, and Dean had never really enjoyed working alone. When Sam turned him down, he felt a great sense of guilty relief, but as his brother started to run through the details of the possible jobs, Dean's attention was still divided, half his mind processing the narrative Sam was dealing out, half appraising the kid's face. Maybe he should insist on Sam taking that break. He could clearly see the toll the last couple of years of struggle had taken out of the younger man. It was written in the new lines around his mouth, the sterner set to his brows, the harsher light in those warm hazel eyes that now mirrored his own gaze that had seen the pits of Hell in a way that made Dean uncomfortable. Uncomfortable and not a little sad.
It was this distraction that meant he was overly quick to jump on the possibility of some fun in a ghost town, and allowed his attention to be focussed away from the one fact in the case that should have been ringing a whole clarion of warning bells, telling him to stay away from Copper Harbour.
Cases of hypothermia, in mild weather.
And a reminder of the debt he owed from so many months ago.