Xayacatl

The Face from the Past

There was a media scrum outside the police department when Sam and Dean arrived early the next morning; television cameras aimed like heavy artillery, their operators crouched tensely in the foxhole behind the frontline of polished, buffed reporters. Vans emblazoned with the hallmarks of several different news stations and topped with impossibly large satellites boxed in the huddle like tanks in military formation.

Onlookers were also beginning to drift over and gather like flotsam. It looked like a press conference was being set up.

The two hunters blanched at the sight, both having forgotten that America's breakfast news feasted on stories like this, that the eyes of the country would be heavily trained on the epicentre of the mall shooting aftermath.

"Dammit." Sam heard his brother mutter over the low rumble of chatter and agreed. Neither wanted to end up with cameos on Good Morning America, especially after the bank fiasco in Milwaukee. Dean didn't need any more media exposure. But then, they'd arranged to meet the lingerie store manager there that morning and their options were limited. They needed to find the woman who'd taken the mask.

"I hear ya," Sam murmured back out of the corner of his mouth as he kept his eyes on the crowd. "But we need to get in there."

Dean was silent for a brief moment, before he gave a one-shouldered shrug and shot Sam a smirk. "Well, the camera does love me!" He was considerably chirpier than he'd been the previous night, and any lingering feverishness had thankfully eased – to Sam's relief. The heavier-duty painkillers chased down by a good night's sleep had worked wonders. Dean had predictably refused another dose of the meds when he'd wakened earlier that morning, grudgingly agreeing only to a couple of over the counter pills that would barely scratch the surface, but Sam was still calling it a win. "One shot of my good side–"

"You don't have a good side," Sam interrupted automatically.

Dean considered this, cocking his head. "You're right, Sammy," he nodded, filling time until the punchline. "I can work any angle!"

Sam rolled his eyes but couldn't dampen the smile that flared. It was inconceivable that he'd been so close to losing his brother the day before. "Whatever, dude!" He snorted. "Anyway, isn't the camera supposed to add ten pounds?"

"Good point. Better watch yourself, Sammy!"

The bitchface was automatic too, but he hadn't the will to give it any real sting. Dean was smirking, snarking and sniping. But he was alive. And Sam couldn't bring himself to be too annoyed.

"Alright," Dean cleared his throat, turning serious. Their banter was always good like that. It helped them to refocus; their minds working in tandem as the insults and jibes rallied back and forth, silently bouncing ideas off each other. "Let's do this. Just act like you don't care about 'em. Don't answer any questions. Keep your back to the camera."

"Okay, you walk in front of me." Sam nodded.

At Dean's sudden motion, the younger Winchester reached out. "Whoa, whoa, slow down!" He put a hand on his brother's shoulder to stop him from charging on too far ahead. "And stay close."

"You want me to hold your hand as well, Samantha? Maybe carry you over the threshold?" Dean was staring at Sam as if he'd sprouted another head.

"No, you idiot!" Sam exhaled in frustration. "For one thing, I'm taller than you." He ignored Dean's eye roll. "You're the one who had your face spread across the news in Milwaukee, not to mention St. Louis. Do I need to keep going?"

"I don't need a bodyguard, Sam!" Dean growled.

But Sam was not to be budged. "Actually, Dean, you do. We can't have anyone recognising you."

"Alright, fine!" Dean barked back, roughly shoving Sam's arm from his good shoulder. "But I ain't no Whitney, dude." With that, he marched forward, Sam scrambling to keep up.

When they reached the edge of the growing crowd of onlookers, Sam moved in behind Dean as closely as possible, keen eyes taking in all the possible hazards that might damage his already injured brother; elbows and purses and cameras and briefcases. He raised his arm, letting it hover in the space above Dean's fractured collarbone as they began pushing their way towards the police department entrance. The elder hunter was oblivious, for which Sam was supremely grateful.

Sam tensed up the muscles in his arm as an unknown shoulder rebounded off it, closely followed by a lethal-looking elbow. He pushed aside a woman who was headed on a collision course with Dean, her face turned to look behind her. Ignoring her indignant huff he shifted his position slightly so that he had more control over the space above Dean's shoulder. He maintained the protective bubble until they reached the open space at the entrance, then he casually used his width to block any view of his brother as they jogged up the stairs with an air of hurried efficiency.

Questions pelted them as they headed for the glass doors. Most, Sam completely tuned out, but some he found himself smirking at. Conspiracy theories were rife, if the reporters were to be believed. He snorted internally, they had no idea.

Eventually they reached the safety of the building's stuffy foyer, the tinny wheeze of the labouring air conditioner easily drowning out the bustle from the front steps. A series of strip lights above flickered on and off with ill-choreographed timing, the imaginary rhythm distracting Sam as he scanned the space. Uniformed officers were milling about while several men dressed in more formal suits were clustered loosely, posturing and casting frequent glances at the door. But it was the figure standing at the front desk gesticulating aggressively that caught Sam's eye. The man was suited and booted, a shaggy head of clay-coloured hair just nudging at his shirt collar. He was burly, not quite as tall as Dean, but broad and solid.

It was then that the younger man realised his big brother was already several steps ahead of him, heading for the object of Sam's sudden scrutiny.

"Uh, I-I'll n-need to just check–" a flustered receptionist was stammering, all but cowering before the irate man in front of her.

"It's okay, Brandi," Dean smoothly interjected, leaning confidently across the desk with an easy grin.

Sam's brows folded in confusion. Vaguely he noted that this was the infamous Brandi – pretty enough, though not Dean's usual prey – but the question of who this newcomer was sped straight to pole position. Not to mention how his brother even knew the guy in the first place.

"He's one of ours," Dean was assuring her, oozing the charm. "Agent," he nodded to the interloper in greeting and laid a jovial hand on the man's arm.

"Dean! I-I mean Agent Gibbons," Brandi blushed beetroot, immediately straightening and beginning to chew her gum exaggeratedly as she thrust out her chest. Sam saw his brother's eyes crinkle, but Dean was otherwise silent. "Oh my god, what happened to your arm?"

"Special Agent business," Dean winked while Brandi simpered and Sam fought his gag reflex.

The unknown man cleared his throat with a mucousy scrape. Brandi let out a small gasp, landing with a bump. "Oh!" She flicked the newcomer a cautious glance. "I'm sorry Agent Kilmister."

"S'okay, sweetheart," Sam heard the gravelly voice for the first time, and tilted his head, certain on some level that he recognised it. "Just doin' your job." He turned to face Dean, and Sam caught sight of his profile.

There was a vague flash of memory, vapory like morning mist. And then all of a sudden he was tossed backwards fifteen years.

Eight years old, sitting cross-legged on a threadbare sofa, picking at a piece of fluff and sulking because he'd been banished again. Sent away from the discussion taking place in the kitchen of their latest rental. Their latest crummy, boring dump. Unbearably jealous that Dean had been allowed to stay, Sam was sulking. And listening. The clunk of beer bottles being lifted and deposited on the formica table, the patchy rumble of voices carrying through the partially closed door. Sam would have crept closer to the doorway, but John Winchester had the hearing prowess of a dog, and would probably have caught him before he'd taken five paces.

Dad, Dean and Billy were cooking up the plan for their latest hunt, which Sam hadn't been allowed to know anything about. But which he'd manipulated his big brother into telling him anyway. Hesitantly, edgily, Dean had told him that the bodies of young teens had been turning up all over town. In pieces. A smaller species of Manticore, Dad and Billy had thought. But they didn't yet know how to catch it.

"C'mon Johnny, it makes sense!" A raised voice boomed out through the ajar door. Johnny. Sam didn't think he'd ever heard anyone ever call his father that. But apparently Billy was some old army buddy and had special privileges that way.

"We are not using my son as bait!" John Winchester thundered, sounding as dangerous as Sam had ever heard him, and he shuddered, instinctively burrowing further into his corner of the sofa. He knew this was not a conversation he was supposed to hear, but the mention of Dean had pricked his ears. Dean being used as bait, he didn't like the sound of that. Didn't like it at all.

Wide-eyed, he peered over the top of the couch, watching the shadows dance beyond the door.

"But Dad–" Dean was trying to protest.

"No, Dean. And that's an order."

"You're goin' soft Johnny-boy!" Billy again, his tone light, but Sam could sense something dangerous beneath it, ticking like an unexploded bomb.

Then the kitchen door was closed with heavy, ominous deliberateness, stopping Sam from hearing his father's response.

He chewed uneasily on a fingernail as the muffled argument continued, the atmosphere in the small cabin oppressive and tense. Pushing the muted voices away, he tried to retreat into his imagination, as he often did. He didn't want to be there. Wanted to get away from the growls and the shouts and the dread. He picked up the Batman comic Dean had read him earlier, trying to picture his brother's favourite superhero, swooping here and there, charging towards the manticore – which Sam decided looked like a shaggy, mangy dog – and killing it with one swift blow.

With almost perfect timing, Sam's manticore crumpled to the ground and the kitchen door was wrenched open, dragging him back to reality. Billy was practically vibrating with repressed rage, shooting Sam an unkind scowl as he stalked towards the front door and slammed it behind him.

"Sammy!" Fingers clicked loudly in front of his eyes and he blinked back into the present. Dean was staring at him with a mixture of exasperation, amusement and concern. "You with me?"

"What?" The younger man coughed unsteadily, trying to banish the ghost of his eight-year-old self.

"You remember Billy, right?" Dean was beaming at him with enthusiasm, gesturing to the man next to him. Brandi had floated off to see to another visitor. They were alone.

"Alright, Sammy?" Bill crunched out, voice rough-hewn and craggy. "Look at you, kid! Last time I saw ya you were, what, yay high?" He chuckled, gesturing at the height of his knee.

Sam gave him a thin smile, not appreciating the exaggerated joke, or the use of the nickname he privileged only his brother with. "Bill, hey. Man, yeah it's been a long time. Good to see you," he managed, aware in his peripheral vision that Dean was giving him an odd look.

Dean eyed him for a moment longer before stepping in to rescue the situation. "Billy and I worked another job together a couple years was it again?"

"A witch." Bill heaved a long-suffering sigh.

"Oh yeah!" Dean nudged Sam. "I ever tell you how much I friggin' hate witches?"

"It was a Bruja all the way from South America," Bill explained to Sam, before turning back to Dean. "Did a real number on ya if I remember right! Guess some things never change, huh?" He gestured to the elder Winchester's sling and injured shoulder.

"What?" Sam felt a jolt, his pulse quickening. That sounded serious. "When was this? What happened?" The fear was irrational, he knew, with Dean standing there in front of him, but he couldn't suppress the Pavlovian response that had been growing in strength since he and Dean had started hunting again. He swallowed, a lump of unease forming in the pit of his stomach. Where had their father been?

"Hunt went south, Sam. Just a bad day at the office. Lucky Billy was there to pull me out." The shutters came down, and Sam knew he'd just been locked out. Curiosity mingled with concern, leaving a bitter taste in his mouth as a latent guilt wrapped itself around the mixture and tied it up in a giant bow. Clearly this had occurred when he was at Stanford, a time Dean was always frustratingly tight-lipped about.

"Yeah, you always did make lousy bait!" Bill guffawed, giving Dean a bone-rattling slap on his good shoulder.

Sam might have throttled him, but he was falling back through time again, the other man's words triggering another memory. His surroundings faded out, darkening at the edges as the scene played out before his eyes.

"Sam! Sammy!" Sam didn't think he had ever heard his father sound so frantic. It chilled him to his core as he jerked awake. Shivering, he scrambled from his bed, nearly tripping in his haste as his father continued to call for him. He rushed into the living room, stumbling to a halt at the sight he came upon. John Winchester was laying a limp, unconscious Dean down onto the sofa. His brother's limbs swung like pendulums as John lowered him, head lolling.

The youngest Winchester felt his insides liquefy at the sight. "Dean!" He screamed, wobbling forwards on jelly legs. His big brother was snowy pale in the faint light, eyes closed, mouth slack. Blood wetly covered his middle, thick and viscous. Sam's hand flew to his mouth and he fought the sudden urge to retch. He'd never known a fear like it. "Dad?" he managed shakily, looking dazedly up at his father.

"Get the kit, son!" John's breath came in heaves, sweat dampening his brow.

Sam froze.

"Now!" he roared, desperate eyes spearing Sam's.

Disconcerted, Sam tried to tune back in to the conversation between his brother and Bill. He was feeling nauseous and he knew there was a very real chance he would toss his cookies if he allowed the memory to keep running.

"So how'd you end up trackin' this thing?" Dean was asking in a low voice.

"Guess I picked up the same vibe you did," Bill shrugged. "Heard about that mask. Did some diggin'...here I am." He held his arms out, palms up.

"Well, no sense in us each workin' our own gig. Might as well pool our resources," Dean suggested, and Sam's heart sank to the floor, weighing him down like an anchor. There was something wrong here, a sense of foreboding the younger Winchester couldn't quite pin down. Sam knew he was going to have to keep a close eye on their unexpected associate. And try to convince his big brother of the same as soon as he got him alone.

As they were directed towards an interview room that had been set aside for their witness, Sam grabbed his opportunity. Literally. With one hand he held Dean back, letting Bill stride on ahead. "Dean, I'm not sure about this!" he hissed anxiously, eyes tracking the older hunter as he disappeared down the corridor.

"What? Why?" Dean stared at him with wide-eyed obliviousness.

"Why?" Sam squawked incredulously. "Do you even remember what went down between him and dad?"

Dean rolled his eyes exaggeratedly. "Jesus, Sammy! That was fifteen years ago. Billy helped me out of a real tight spot when I needed him down in New Mexico. Dad wasn't around then."

It was a condemnation. A damning gavel.

And Sam felt it deeply; the confirmation that their father really had abandoned Dean to hunt alone. The realisation burned, hotter still when he caught sight of the hurt his brother didn't manage to bury in time. He opened his mouth, needing to say something – knowing that something needed to be said – but this wasn't the time or the place.

He showed nothing of his inner turmoil to his brother, however, merely raising a sceptical brow.

Dean sighed. "Look, Billy's good people. And we need all the help we can get on this one." And with that, he turned to follow the older hunter, not waiting for Sam to follow.

o0o0o

The store manager easily identified the woman who had stolen the mask, a junior sales assistant by the name of Emily Berger. Dean hadn't even needed to unholster his bad cop hard stare. Sam hadn't needed the full beam puppy eyes. The woman's address was quickly obtained from the store's personnel records and then they were on their way. Billy had his own ride and was travelling separately, which gave Sam the opening he'd seemingly been waiting for. He'd been bitching freely and with reckless abandon since the second he'd gotten behind the Impala's wheel.

Dean rubbed a thumb and forefinger across his brow, adding a growing headache to the charging army of pain the crappy, band-aid pills were attempting to battle. They were heavily outgunned. He winced as Sam revved the Chevy's engine just a little too throatily, setting his teeth on edge. "Watch it, Sam!" He snapped, in no mood to deal with his brother mishandling his car. Sighing theatrically, he let his head tip sideways against the window with a dull thunk.

The younger Winchester was undeterred. "I'm telling you, man. There's something off about him."

Dean swallowed back a groan. Awesome. Not only was he feeling like crap warmed over, but Sam had gotten hold of a bone and was worrying it with all his might. As if they didn't have enough to deal with. "Dammit Sam! We've been through this. It was years ago," he groused, fresh out of patience for a trip down memory lane with his brother, who never had anything good to say about that particular stretch of their lives.

Sam ignored him and abruptly took the conversation in a different direction as he swung the Impala a harsh left. "What happened on that hunt you worked on together while I was at Stanford?"

Slightly off balance from the non sequitur, and chewing on another reprimand for his brother's clumsy manoeuvring, it took Dean a few seconds to realise what the younger man was asking. "What–Sam, just let it go!"

There was no way he wanted to share that particular story. All kinds of warnings were flashing up; skulls, crosses, do not enters, hazardous materials. The whole débâcle hadn't been one of Dean's brightest moments, but worse, Sam would probably have a meltdown if he'd known just how serious it had gotten, or how close he'd come to being an only child.

Sam was giving him the anxious bitchface. One facial expression, and somehow he managed to work so many different looks. "Don't you think I have a right to know?"

Dean went rigid, hundreds of gloomy, solitary nights passing before his eyes. Who the hell did Sam think he was? Sam, who had flounced off to California without a backwards glance, who hadn't cared that Dean was on his own half the time. Who hadn't thought to call when his big brother was laid up in the hospital, with only Billy to grab him spare clothes and spring him once the innocently curious questions about his fraudulent insurance started. Sam thought he had a right to know?

Yeah, that one pissed him off.

"Honestly? No." Dean skewered his brother with a cold stare. No matter how much he loved the kid, or how close they'd become since their father died, Dean couldn't quite let those years of loneliness completely fade away. An after-image imprinted on his soul, always visible when he looked closely enough. And he knew that hurt Sam, could see it straight away on the kid's face, the way his little brother turned to stare at the road in front, blinking furiously. And Dean was sorry for it, but he wasn't going to apologise either.

Several long moments passed. Long enough for Sam to regain his composure, apparently, because he came back fighting. Sam and his geekboy tendency to over-analyse everything. Whittling away at the friggin' bone. Damn thing would be a toothpick by the time the kid was done. "What did he mean when he said you were lousy bait?"

Dean felt his heart skip a couple of beats as an avalanche of sounds and images and pain surged over him. "That?" He cleared his throat loudly, trying to hide the squeak.

Sam shot him a knowing look, concern wrestling with irritation, his expression setting in that way Dean knew meant his brother was definitely in it for the long haul. "Yeah, that."

The elder hunter was in no hurry to turn over that particular patch of soil. Even now, his misjudgement that night still burned, humiliation rising afresh. Biting his lip, he scratched at the back of his neck, fiddling with the sling. Sam reached across and batted his hand away.

"Quit messing with that!"

"Alright, mom!"

Sam pursed his lips. "Dean?" He was not to be friggin' moved.

"Okay, fine!" the elder Winchester relented with a heavy sigh, closing his eyes briefly as the aches in his body began to gather momentum again. The paltry painkillers had worn off. "Look, I set myself up to be bait for that bitch, and I messed up. If Billy hadn'a been there, I'da been toast. That's all you need to know." Case closed, end of discussion.

Apparently Sam didn't get the memo. "That seems to have happened quite a lot." It was bitter, sardonic.

And it made Dean growl low in irritation. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

Sam puffed out a breath, working his jaw silently for a few beats as if he was trying out the words for size. "I mean the first time he worked with us, Dean. You being bait. It all going horribly wrong. Ringing any bells?"

The elder Winchester felt his cheeks burn hot. Low blow, Sam. He could vividly remember the tanning his father had given him after that one. John Winchester could give a dressing down like no other. Once his injuries had healed, of course. But it had been another one of his own mistakes, not Billy's, not in the way Sam seemed to be suggesting. "That is not what happened, Sam. You were obviously too young to remember," he spat.

The bitchface was back. "Well then enlighten me, Dean!" Sam retorted in that condescending tone Dean really hated. "I can remember dad saying no way. I was old enough to remember him ordering you not to do it. Not to put yourself at risk from that friggin' thing. Way I remember it, Bill seemed to be there right when it happened!"

Dean shifted uncomfortably and deliberately turned to look out the passenger side window. Small houses were whizzing by, all pale blues and greys. "Yeah, well sorry to burst your bubble there, Sammy, but that one was on me too."

Sam sounded genuinely confused. "What the hell are you talking about?"

Dean whipped his head around to face his brother's heated gaze, regretting the motion as his temples pulsed. "I was the one who went out there. I was the one who made myself bait for that thing."

The kid's features scrunched up like a discarded wrapper. "What? Dean, you were twelve!"

"Exactly! I was old enough to know what I was doin' and it was my decision to do it," Dean argued back, gesturing towards himself. Sam just didn't get it. Dean had been making life or death decisions since...well, for as long as he could remember. Age didn't come into it. "'Sides, it worked didn't it?"

Sam's eyes popped, a vein perceptibly bulging on his forehead. He looked as if he was on the verge of an aneurysm. "Yeah, Dean. It worked really well. You got gutted by that monster and I had to help dad stitch you back together! Job done."

Dean just shook his head, understanding his brother's anger but knowing it was directed at the wrong person. "Well, we got the damn thing," he reasoned, trying to put the safety back on his temper. "That's what matters. Same with New Mexico. Me and Billy got that Bruja bitch."

When Sam opened his mouth, no doubt to make another smart-ass comment, Dean jumped in again. "I'm not havin' this conversation with you again, Sam. You weren't around then. You don't get to judge."

That one had hit a nerve, he could see it instantly, Sam recoiling as if he'd been slapped. But Dean was too angry – at himself, at Sam, at their father – to try to fix it.

"Fine," Sam muttered thickly, biting his lip. And Dean hated to see it, but on this one he needed to stand firm.

"Fine," he echoed, but not unkindly, wanting to lift the heavy curtain of tension that had drawn between them. "Now, tell me again what Bobby said about the incantation."

After a long, elastic moment, Sam settled back into business mode, but unhappily, if the sneaky side-glance was anything to go by. "Well, we've got all the stuff we need. I measured it all out while you were getting your beauty sleep."

Dean sensed an opportunity to lighten the mood and went for it. "I still say it sounds more like a burrito mix than a spell, dude."

"If you like rat bones and dog blood in your burrito!" Sam snorted.

"Shut up! You know what I'm talkin' about. All those friggin' spices and chillies."

There was a smile, little more than a vapour, but a smile nonetheless. Mission accomplished.

"Yeah, whatever," Sam shook his head. "It's the incantation itself we need to worry about. Thing's damn hard to read, and we can't make any mistakes."

"So...we light it all up, say our lines and that's it? The curse is lifted?"

"If we say the words right. And I don't know about you, but ancient Aztec Nahuatl wasn't exactly on my list of high school languages." Sam looked comically affronted.

"Didn't they teach that kinda geekboy crap at Stanford?" Dean rolled his eyes. "C'mon, how hard can it be?"

"This from the guy who can't even speak English properly sometimes!" Sam tossed back, a twinkle in his eye.

"Shut up!"

Sam flashed another smile, but this time it was grim, accepting. "I'll do it. I've had more time to look at it anyway." He turned to Dean. "You can just do what you do best."

"Lightin' things up?"

Third smile's the charm. "Exactly."


They congregated around the corner from Emily Berger's cutesy, little house. Dean had sneered and rolled his eyes at the cacophony of hot pink flowers that blasted out from underneath each of the front windows as they'd carefully cruised past in the Impala. "Sorry, Sammy, I can't hear you over those friggin' flowers" he'd grumbled with a disgusted nose-wrinkle. Sam had privately agreed, but encouraging a grouchy Dean was never wise. The rest of the house had been modest in comparison, the milky grey of the walls more than a few decibels quieter than its floral garnish. The small dwelling was set back several metres from the sidewalk, and Sam was glad of it; if there was going to be a showdown, better that any curtain-twitching neighbours didn't have a front row seat.

The drapes were almost fully closed, a small gap in each window not giving much away. It struck Sam as odd, at this time in the morning, for the little house to look like it had gone into hibernation.

"So, how are we gonna play this?" Dean asked. And Sam could have sworn that his brother looked first at Bill. Or had he just imagined it? The elder Winchester was shifting slightly on the spot, discomfort clearly showing in the taut planes of his cheeks and the stiff way he held himself. The painkillers had to have worn off, Sam fretted, swallowing uneasily.

"Dean, how about you and I take the back and Sam goes front?" Bill suggested, barely sparing Sam a glance.

Sam was instantly shaking his head. "No. Dean can't handle a weapon right now. He comes with me. We'll both take back."

He tensed, waiting for his brother to protest. Dean was watching him intently, as if trying to figure out whether it was protectiveness or hostility that was driving the demand. Either way, Sam could tell his brother wasn't thrilled. But Dean had to see the logic in the plan. With his right arm strapped up in a sling, firing a gun was out of the question. If Sam could have benched him completely, he would have, but he also knew his brother wouldn't stay down.

"Works for me," Dean nodded, and Sam felt some of the tension deflate from his body.

"Alright," the former marine shrugged nonchalantly, but he narrowed his eyes at Sam before giving Dean an odd look that the younger Winchester couldn't begin to decipher. Sam only knew that he didn't like it. But he wasn't going anywhere near the disastrous conversation he'd just had with Dean in the Impala. Any attempt at broaching the subject in the future would be a booby-trapped, minefield of a conversation. He was going to have to tread with care.

They divided the supplies and equipment, Sam childishly pleased that Bill hadn't been trusted with the materials for the incantation. He did have a ridiculously large gun, though, which Sam thought was unnecessary but which Dean had made eyes at as soon as Bill had lifted it from the trunk of his car. Sam watched as their father's old friend shoved it into the back of his waistband and headed up the front path, signalling to the brothers to sneak along the side of the house and around the back. Sam slunk forwards with a hand on his colt, while Dean hefted the bag of spell ingredients with his good arm.

The brothers each took a side, meeting at the back door. Dean shook his head, indicating that he hadn't been able to see anything through the windows he'd passed. Sam had come up similarly empty. They paused at the door, waiting to hear Bill's knock from the front, Sam giving Dean a stern glare until he took his place behind his little brother. The elder Winchester set his jaw in discontent, shaking his head tightly, but he allowed Sam to step forward nevertheless.

Bill's knock rang hollowly through the small dwelling, then a second time. Their cue to move. Sam dropped to a crouch and began quickly picking the lock. The procedure took less than ten seconds, Sam's trained hands accomplishing the task with nary a scratch nor a sound. He chanced a quick glance at Dean – just to make sure his brother wasn't about to charge forward – before ghosting the door silently open and stalking, cat-like into the small, chintzy kitchen. He was momentarily disorientated by polka dots and flower patterned surfaces before he regained his senses and continued smoothly onwards. He couldn't hear Dean behind him, but he knew his brother was there.

Framed pictures adorned the walls in the hallway; groups of women squeezed together, pouting at the camera, Emily and a man – probably a boyfriend. It was dizzying.

There was a miasmatic, resistant air in the place that made Sam feel as if he was wading through water. It smelled like death. And if Sam knew anything, he knew death. The silence was unnerving but vacant. After a lifetime of sensing presences in the emptiest of places, Sam classed himself as an expert. But here he felt nothing. He was confident that no one was home.

The stench alone should have told him how wrong he was.

Sam saw the body lying in the bathroom as soon as he rounded the corner in the corridor, Dean's hissed expletive telling him that his big brother had seen it at the same time. Light was spilling in through frosted glass, bathing the figure in an eerie, ethereal light. The blood halo spoiled the picture; a tacky, ragged puddle of deepest red had clotted stickily on the pale tan tiles, rusty flecks blotted the white units and veiny trickles of blood had dripped down from a larger splatter on the glass shower screen. The woman's blonde tresses were matted on the right side of her head. She lay face down, arms bent at the elbows.

A gun was clasped loosely by fingers long since stiffened by rigor mortis.

"Sonofabitch," Sam murmured, and then cleared his throat, still mindful of possible threats even though the scenario seemed pretty clear-cut. "Stay here," he ordered his brother, who opened his mouth defiantly. "I mean it!" Sam hissed before Dean could protest, neatly shutting him up. The elder Winchester glared but gave a single, curt nod.

Sam drew his weapon and moved swiftly through the house, swinging tensely into each room and allowing the colt's barrel to precede him into every confined space he found. After a few tense seconds, he slid the gun away, certain there were no unwelcome stowaways. "We're clear!" he announced to Dean, moving with reluctance towards the front door to let Bill in.

The older man looked pissed as he stepped inside. "What the hell took you so long?"

"She's dead," Sam said bluntly, moving back to allow the older man past. Somehow, Bill still managed to clip him with his shoulder, shoving him back a step.

"In that case, that was pretty fast work," Bill glanced back with a raised eyebrow.

Sam treated him to his highest calibre scowl.

When they reached the bathroom, Dean was crouched over the body. He looked up as they approached, nodding in confirmation to Sam's unvoiced question. There was no doubt then, she was definitely dead. "Looks like she's been down a while," Dean commented. "Stone cold."

"What about the mask?" Bill asked, pausing at the doorway.

"Not in here," Dean shrugged with his good shoulder. "Maybe it's somewhere in one of the other rooms."

"Well then, let's get to work!" the older man ordered as he looked expectantly from brother to brother.

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