The Game Changer
It had been fruitless and frustrating. All three men growing steadily more hopeless.
Sam had benched a wavering, ashen Dean after the first half hour, directing him towards the nearest couch. And the elder Winchester had meekly obeyed, nearly disappearing beneath a pile of throws and candy-coloured cushions and doing nothing to ease Sam's concerns. He'd realised belatedly that his big brother hadn't taken any painkillers since earlier that morning and was most likely hurting in that patented Winchester suffer-in-silence way. Making a mental note to rectify that situation as soon as they returned to the Impala, Sam had refocused on the search, trying to speed up his efforts.
They'd found nothing in the end, reluctantly admitting defeat and quickly erasing any signs of their presence as best they could. Then Sam had manhandled a sluggish Dean out the back door, all the while aware of the furtive, assessing glances that Bill kept shooting their way. The younger man hadn't liked it, not one bit, but he'd had his hands full with his ailing brother. He'd filed it away for later analysis, though, for when he didn't have more important things to do, like get Dean doped up with more pain pills, call in an anonymous tip and get them the hell away before the police road show arrived.
Refuge had been sought at Jim Bob's Drinkery for a beer and a debrief. Predictably, Dean had refused any and all of Sam's attempts at medicating him, arguing that a few bottles of El Sol would cure all of his ills anyway. Not wanting to look or sound like a nagging wife in front of Bill, Sam had relented. Besides he had to admit, his big brother had certainly perked up after the delivery of Jim Bob's Mega Extra Extra Huge Cheeseburger (with extra onions) – which to Sam, looked like a myocardial infarction in a seeded bun – and was heartily drawing on a beer.
The bar was as much of a dive as anywhere Dean tended to haunt. The air was ghostly with wisps of cigarette smoke, the jaundiced walls coated with nicotine. The dark wood of the tables and floor
was chipped and scratched, and Sam didn't think the place had seen a bottle of disinfectant since the dawn of time. The clientèle wasn't much better. A couple of surly locals were bitching with the bartender, while another, corpulent older man was swaying slightly against the far end of the bar top, lips silently monologuing.
There was a pool table in one corner, attracting a steady throughput. Dean had lit up at the sight, before visibly deflating at the apparent realisation that his pool-hustling career was on enforced hiatus. He'd come around as soon as Sam handed him the menu, though, his spirits buoyed at the prospect of grease and gristle.
"So, what's our next step?" Dean asked through a beefy mouthful, smirking when Sam narrowed his eyes in disapproval.
Dean's sense of urgency had definitely diminished since the previous night, Sam noted. But then, he'd been hopped up on adrenaline and anger. He'd calmed considerably since then, acknowledging that they couldn't start their own investigation of Emily Berger's death until the police had finished theirs. And that the leads weren't exactly coming thick and fast. They were stuck, so they might as well eat.
The younger Winchester picked at his wilted 'salad'. Clearly Jim Bob didn't put as much effort into food that wasn't aimed at clogging arteries. There was nothing mega, extra or huge about the bowl of browning, flaccid lettuce. "Canvass the neighbours?" he suggested, giving a small sigh when a suspiciously squidgy cherry tomato eluded his fork.
Bill snorted disagreeably. "And how long is that gonna take us, huh? While we're sittin' round with our thumbs up our asses, havin' tea and cookies with some old lady, that mask could be on its way anywhere!" The older man had been in a foul mood ever since they'd left Emily Berger's house, but Sam couldn't put his finger on why.
"What, you got a better idea?" Sam snapped back, finally spearing the disobedient tomato with a vicious stab. "Let me guess: getting a phonebook and starting from the top?"
Billy's eyes flashed darkly, and he took a breath, opening his mouth to respond but Dean got in first.
"Ladies, please, put the handbags away." He shook his head, angling his beer towards his little brother. "Sam's right. We got nothin' here. We need to do some more diggin'."
Sam tried to hide a grin, a little embarrassed at how bolstered he was by his brother's vote of confidence.
"That said," Dean was continuing. "We're not writin' a research paper, here." He looked at Sam, who bristled at the implied criticism. "We need to figure this out, and fast. Each time, it's usually been, what, within twenty-four hours?"
The other two men nodded.
"And we don't know when Emily died, right?"
They shook their heads.
"But it's getting quicker," Sam pointed out. "The mask seems to be growing more powerful with each victim."
"So what you're saying is, we got squat!" Bill thumped a meaty fist down on the table surface, causing the beer bottles to wobble threateningly.
"No," Sam disagreed calmly, mentally calculating. "She can't have been dead more than a few hours. The smell was nowhere near bad enough, and there was still some give on her body, rigor mortis wasn't complete." Somewhere at the back of his mind, Sam marvelled at his ability to hold such a morbid conversation over lunch, that he even knew that much about dead bodies at all.
Dean considered Sam's argument. "Okay, so it probably happened sometime last night." He set his burger down and rubbed his free hand across his face. "Means we need to figure this out before tonight."
"Cuttin' it fine!" Bill shook his head, looking at Dean with a half smile. "Kinda your MO, if memory serves!" He chuckled, mood lightening.
Dean ducked his head, pinkening. Sam couldn't tell if he was embarrassed or proud. "What can I say? I'm just that good!"
"I gotta hand it to ya, man. You found that Bruja quicker than I could have," Bill went on, and Sam felt himself sit up straighter, his curiosity piqued. "And man, you really took one for the team!" the older hunter continued, guffawing lewdly.
Sam swivelled to look at his brother, rolling his eyes when Dean puffed out his chest. "Just doin' my research, dude. How else was I supposed to find out if she had the devil mark on her ass?"
The two men laughed, evidently sharing a longstanding joke. Sam swallowed uncomfortably, uneasy at this sudden nostalgia, and feeling – though he'd be damned if he'd ever admit it – a little left out.
"Yeah, yeah, Casanova. By the time she was through with you–" Bill began.
Dean cleared his throat in warning, sending the older man a significant look until he fell silent. "S'why I hate witches!" he gave a closed-mouth smile as if attempting to dissipate the suddenly heavy atmosphere, and then popped the remainder of his burger in his mouth, chewing loudly. A classic manoeuvre straight from the Dean Winchester deflection playbook.
Sam decided that, as soon as this case was done, he was researching everything he could about Brujas.
Dean finished chomping and gulped, topping off the entire production with an earth-shattering belch. Sam could have sworn he felt the ground move.
"You done?" The younger Winchester asked with a pointed glare.
Dean patted his stomach affectionately. "Yep," he nodded with a grin. "Now, are you two just gonna sit around, or are we gonna find this friggin' thing?"
Sam just snorted and pulled out his wallet. It wasn't even worth arguing.
They'd waited until the uniformed officers had done their initial sweep of the neighbourhood before making their move.
"Okay, Sam and I can take this side," Dean had gestured to the row of little houses flanking Emily Berger's. "Billy, you take the other." In his periphery he had seen Sam relax ever so slightly, as if the kid had expected to go solo. He'd frowned internally, pondering his little brother's odd behaviour. Sam didn't like Billy, that much was clear, but the rest of it Dean was still trying to figure out.
"Fine by me," the older man had shrugged, pivoting and striding across the street with a flick of the hand.
And Sam and Dean had begun their usual grunt work; tapping on doors, flicking their badges open, declining refreshments, deflecting the complaints of residents who were all interrogated out. The first house they tried was a bust, a young couple who had been away from home the previous night. The second house was empty the first time they tried, so they moved on to the next one, a family of five who'd seen nothing, heard nothing, and hell, didn't even know Emily Berger. Next on the block was a door opened by a waif-like teenager reeking of weed. No, he hadn't heard anything. He'd had his friends over the previous night, they'd just been talking. Or getting high. Either way it wasn't promising.
No one had heard a gunshot, which the hunters found hard to swallow, but over the years they'd learned that people often heard what they wanted to hear. In a quiet, sleepy suburb, no one wanted to hear a woman shooting herself.
Dejected, and growing more edgy – Dean starting to wish he'd taken those painkillers back at Jim Bob's – the brothers had reconvened out on the street. There had been no sign of Billy, and no messages either. It looked like he'd had about as much luck as they had. For lack of another option, Dean had been about to call him when a car finally turned into the driveway of the second house. Emily's next door neighbour.
And that was when things began to look more promising.
"Yes?" Head cocked sideways, eyes shrewdly assessing, the elderly woman peered up at them as she pulled the door open. Silvery grey hair sat in rigid rows against her skull, like a ploughed field. Sagging, papery skin hung in drapes across her face, making her mouth droop and her eyes appear sunken and eroded.
Dean immediately glanced at his little brother, crinkling his eyes despite the urgency of the situation. You're up, Sammy. When Sam shot him a horrified scowl in return, his muscles ached with the effort of holding back a laugh. The kid had always had a way with older women, all dimples and bashful smiles, which Dean had used on many occasions and which he was more than happy to cultivate.
Sam shifted on the spot, limbering up. "Uh, ma'am, we're sorry to bother you," he said from underneath his eyelashes, giving them a nervous flutter. "I'm Agent Hill, and this is my partner Agent Gibbons. We're, uh, we're investigating the events that occurred next door. You'll have spoken to the police earlier?"
"What?" the woman squawked, timbre and volume making it hard to tell if she was surprised or merely hard of hearing.
"We're investigating the events that occurred next door," Dean repeated exaggeratedly, upping his volume and stepping closer.
"I heard, you dimwit!" The woman looked at him scathingly before turning back to Sam, her expression softening.
Dammit, but Sam really did have some kind of gift.
"I'm sorry, Mrs...?" Sam began hesitantly.
"It's Miss, actually, Miss Randy," she looked coquettishly at the younger Winchester, eyes twinkling. "Randy by name, randy by nature!" She cackled, and to his credit, Sam made an admirable effort to join in. Dean was too busy trying not to toss his cookies.
"Can we come in, Miss?" Sam gave her aw shucks with one tiny smile. "We got a couple questions we'd like to ask you about Miss Berger."
"Well, I don't know. You boys seem very nice," she mused, looking only at Sam. "But I've already answered a lot of questions today. In any case, why are the FBI poking around in a little suburban suicide?"
The brothers exchanged a glance, Dean giving an infinitesimal shrug. This was Sam's play, not his.
"Uh...um," Sam seemed to waver nervously, before he leaned closer to the woman, lowering his voice conspiratorially. "I-I can't say, exactly. You understand?" He paused, going for the amateur dramatics. "You see, it's just that this is my very first case." He gestured towards Dean. "I don't want to look like an idiot in front of my partner."
Dean raised his eyebrows, surprised but impressed.
The woman nodded seriously. "Oh well, in that case why don't you boys come in. I'm sure I've got some cookies in the kitchen." She winked at Sam and stood back to let them enter.
When Sam looked back at his big brother, he was blushing furiously, knowing Dean wasn't about to let him forget what he'd just done. He wasn't wrong.
The living room was stiflingly hot. Why did older people always seem to set their air-conditioning to sub-Saharan? Dean had been feeling his injuries more and more as the day went on, but they were almost unbearable now in the confines of his suit jacket. But he couldn't very well take it off, not when he was still strapped into that friggin' sling. Sam, however, immediately shrugged out of his jacket and laid it on the paisley patterned couch beside him. The bastard.
As if Sam could read his thoughts, the younger man looked over at him. Dean was expecting his brother to take full advantage of his misfortune, for Sam to toss him an amused smirk, but instead the kid's features were pinched in concern. Oh yeah, Dean reminded himself, Sam was still set to clucky mode.
Miss Randy returned with a tray groaning under the weight of several enormous, craggy cookies. Dean eyed them worriedly, wondering if they were as solid as they looked. Neither of the brothers could afford a trip to the dentist.
"Now then, who wants a cookie? I made them myself, you know."
Dean wanted to say no, oh how he wanted to say no. But Sam was giving him a glare that said in no uncertain terms that since he had already debased himself in order to get them into the house, Dean was damn well going to have to play his part too. The elder Winchester stifled a wince.
"Please," he gave her a winning, closed-mouth smile. She stared back at him as if he'd just told her he liked to kick puppies in his spare time, but she nevertheless handed him a plate and napkin. She watched him expectantly as he raised the cookie to his lips, feeling absurdly like he was sitting some kind of exam. Sam was struggling to restrain a grin.
It was like biting into a handful of gravel. He forced back a groan as he chewed with little success on the biscuit, eventually gulping it down, trying not to gag as it scraped the back of his throat. "Delicious, thank you," he croaked through abraded vocal chords. The woman seemed satisfied, and Dean sent up a silent prayer of thanks. There was no way he'd be able to take another bite of that thing.
Sam stepped in, giving him time to recover. "So, ma'am, Emily Berger was your next door neighbour?" He waited for her nod of confirmation. "Were you at home last night?"
"No, I was not, as it happens," the woman answered, and Dean felt his heart plummet. He'd nearly sliced his oesophagus open on that friggin' cookie and for nothing?
"Oh," Sam seemed as deflated as Dean. "Uh," he began, uncertain, looking at his big brother in helplessness.
Dean cast his mind around, trying to find something that might give them an in. His eyes ricocheted from ugly china figurines, to a vase of brittle, dried flowers, to the crocheted wall hanging that he thought Miss Randy had probably made herself. Inspiration was thin. "Can you tell us what Miss Berger was like as a neighbour?" He asked, grasping at straws.
"Well, now!" the woman harrumphed in disapproval, and Dean's heart instantly bounced back. Were they finally about to get somewhere? "That girl! I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm sorry she's dead, but she's been threatening to do it for months. I'm not surprised she finally went through with it!"
"Excuse me?" Sam was frowning. "What do you mean?"
"That girl and her boyfriend..." Dean nodded to himself at her answer, remembering the photos they'd seen next door. "Always arguing! Carrying on into the small hours. I used to hear them going at it all the time..."
Both brothers leaned forward.
"I'm really going to do it this time! She'd say. You can't leave me! It was always the same. I'll end it all. I'll kill myself! Poor boy. I didn't think he'd have the balls to finally walk away from her, but I guess he must have, 'cause there she is. Dead."
Holy crap. Dean met his brother's analytical gaze, seeing a similar glimmer of understanding.
"Why would you think he had somethin' to do with it?" Dean pressed, "I mean, if she was that close to the edge, she mighta gone and done it anyway?"
"Oh because I saw his car outside when I left to go visit my niece. That would have been around 8.30 last night."
"Right, that's very helpful ma'am," Sam was practically bouncing on the edge of his seat with the urge to leave, Dean hot on his heels. "Can you tell us his name?"
"Oh yes, he's a friend of my niece's, Derek Manning. He runs private flights out of the municipal airport, but not the sharpest tool, if you catch my drift," that last was whispered secretively, as if hidden ears might be listening in.
The brothers shared a glance.
"Thanks for your time, ma'am," Sam gifted her with another of his humble smiles, and it was all Dean could do not to roll his eyes when she simpered in response.
"Oh, I think you can call me Laura, young man. And do come back if there's anything else I can help you with!"
When she winked suggestively, Sam almost fell over himself to escape the room. And despite the gravity of the situation, despite the fact they were running out of time, despite the fact that someone else was dead, Dean howled with laughter the second they cleared the front lawn.
"So, you think this guy Manning took the mask to the airfield?" Billy raised his eyebrows sceptically.
They had regrouped by the cars, sharing the information they'd gleaned from their respective canvassing efforts. Billy was leaning against his Pontiac with ostensible calm, but Dean could see a tense muscle twitching along his jawline. The older man had been brittle and tetchy since they'd come up empty-handed during their search of Emily's house. Dean could relate, frustrated and aching all over, but he wondered what else had gotten the other hunter's dander up.
"That's right." Sam too, had been acting oddly, his dislike of Billy only seeming to grow as the day wore on. The kid's shoulders were practically hunched up around his ears, a permafrown furrowing his brows.
"Based on what?" Billy snorted dismissively, his eyes narrowing at Sam.
Dean shifted instinctively towards his brother, ignoring the way Sam's lips thinned in protest. He knew the kid was more than capable of fighting his own battles, but the way Sam and Billy were facing off held a sense of imminent carnage; like barrels of gunpowder waiting to spark. It would be up to him to break out the extinguisher. "C'mon, dude," he attempted to calm his old friend. "Makes sense. Manning was there last night, we know that. It also makes sense that the mask would drive Emily to kill herself, probably in front of him."
"Wait a minute," Billy held up a calloused hand, shaking his head. "That mask is s'posed to drive people to act out their inner fears, right? Sounds like the bitch wanted to off herself."
"She threatened to. Doesn't mean she would've actually gone through with it!" Sam threw his arms out, and Dean took a step back, narrowly avoiding taking a blow to his injured shoulder. "Anyway, what does that even matter? It's not like there was anyone else around who could've taken the mask, and I don't hear you coming up with any better ideas! It's the only thing that fits." It was a fair point, albeit delivered without the kid's usual meticulousness. Billy hadn't turned up anything of use from his own interviews, but it wasn't like Sam to take cheap shots.
Dean raised his hand to his temple, trying to massage away the throbbing pains that had taken up residence some hours back. He felt like hammered crap; exhausted, lead-limbed and aching. And the raised voices weren't helping.
"Alright, alright," Billy conceded, but with ill-temper. "I'll give you that one. But why the airport, huh?" He turned to Dean and pointed a lecturing finger. "We can't afford to take chances on some crackpot theory."
The elder Winchester bristled on his brother's behalf. "I think Sam's right," he stood his ground and set his jaw. "It's the best guess we have right now. If this guy flies a plane..." He shuddered involuntarily. Planes. "Think about it. The mask looks for destruction, right? I'm thinkin' a plane crash would do that."
"And I'll bet it's one of Manning's biggest fears, as a pilot," Sam interjected smugly, lip twitching as he looked at Billy.
Dean could see the rays of acceptance begin to dawn in Billy's eyes before the older man gave a stiff nod. "Okay. I'm in."
"Good," the elder Winchester nodded back, eager to get moving now that they were finally all in agreement. "How do you wanna do this? Someone needs to check out Manning's home. He might still be there."
"How about Sam does that," Billy suggested, giving the younger Winchester a calculating look that Dean might have missed if he hadn't been staring directly at him. "You and I can head to the airfield."
Dean studied Billy for a beat, sensing the mutual dislike between his brother and his old friend more strongly than ever. Twice now, Billy had tried to send Sam off on his own. Dean couldn't quite get his head around the why of it, he just knew there was no way he was allowing it to happen. "No, Sammy and I go together." He sensed more than saw his brother's agreement, and when he turned to look at the younger man, there was something indefinable in Sam's gaze. There was the expected relief, an odd level of surprise, unvoiced solidarity...but there was something else there that he couldn't discern. Something which suggested a lot more had been going on beneath the kid's surface than Dean had realised. But there wasn't time for that now.
"We'll take the airfield," Sam declared, emboldened and readying himself for a fight. Dean had also tensed for imminent battle. Billy was not a man who liked to be cut out of the action, and he'd made that clear back at Emily Berger's place.
The older hunter slid his eyes from brother to brother before shrugging nonchalantly. "Alright, if that's the way you wanna play it, Dean," he shifted to open the Pontiac's driver door. "You call me if you find him."
"Yeah, likewise," Dean cocked his head, off balance at the lack of protest.
"Wait," Sam stepped forward, picking up their duffel of supplies. "Don't you wanna take some of this? You'll need a copy of the incantation too, just in case."
"What?" Billy looked blank for a split second before he rallied. "Oh yeah, good thinkin'." He waited as Sam halved the spell ingredients and accepted the bag with a gravelly thanks. Nodding at Dean, he slid into the driver's seat and loudly gunned the engine, saluting the brothers as he drove off.
Sam turned to face Dean, still frowning. "Did that seem too easy to you?"
Dean felt himself tense up again. "Yeah, so?"
"Something doesn't feel right, Dean. I don't trust him."
"Yeah, you made that pretty clear. Look, Sam, you're not his biggest fan, I get that. But you're gonna have to park it, okay? Important thing is we find this damn thing and put it to bed."
"Fine, okay," Sam held his palms up. "But I don't like it," he muttered under his breath.
Dean heard him but chose not to pursue it. "Let's just get goin', huh?" He took a step towards the Impala, but turned back to Sam, a brow raised quizzically as he gestured vaguely with his free hand. "I uh, I guess we don't have time to get outta these friggin' monkey suits, huh?"
His only answer was a bitchface.
The municipal airport was surprisingly well kept, quaint. Dean didn't know exactly what he'd expected, but it had probably involved something to do with rolling tumbleweeds and flimsy model aircraft that looked as if they'd been glued together by a five year old.
But, as Sam had taken great scholarly delight in educating him – with the air of a local tour guide puffing out his chest – the state university had taken on a significant role in running the small airfield. With the richness of college funding there had been upgrades and developments and refurbishments, making the place look neat and well-tended. Quite how the kid knew that, Dean hadn't a clue, but it annoyed him nonetheless. Sam had a tendency to absorb any and all things college-related as if by osmosis.
Sam was right, though, he had to admit. The grounds were tidy, the grass painstakingly trimmed. There were no potholes on the runway. The dainty airport terminal was the size of a shoebox, but had been painted a smooth, pristine cream and was obviously cared for.
If felt strange, somehow, stalking past; their heightened state of alert, the seriousness of their mission incongruous to their innocuous surroundings. It hadn't taken long to slink past the minimal security. They'd parked the Impala in an unobtrusive spot and had stuck to the shadows with ease, heading toward a row of darkened hangars to the north. They hadn't had time to find out which of the planes was Manning's, or which of the buildings housed it. Making a trade-off between intel and inconspicuousness, they'd decided to just break in and look for signs of life in each hangar. Neither of them liked going in blind, but they'd wasted enough time. The airfield was reassuringly silent, but that didn't mean Manning wasn't about to start taxiing.
Assuming he was there, and not at home. Billy hadn't given any indication either way.
The air oozed Southern humidity and Dean tracked a bead of sweat as it trickled down the back of his neck. His head continued to pulse with a dull ache and his injured shoulder felt stiff and twice its size. The duffel seemed to be growing heavier and heavier with each step, and Dean was beginning to regret insisting that Sam have both his hands free to fight and draw his weapon. He knew he was moving slower than usual, several paces behind his little brother where he would normally have been leading.
As if reading his thoughts, Sam glanced back at him, concern pockmarking his forehead. He tilted his head in silent query, the 'you okay?' as audible as if he'd uttered it aloud. Dean nodded too quickly, feeling his brain sloshing and seeing Sam narrow his eyes. The younger man held his gaze for a long moment before letting out a soft sigh and continuing onwards. Dean closed his eyes and swallowed, glad Sam couldn't see, and then wobbled after him.
They reached the side of the long row of hangers, skirting the perimeter and around to the first entrance. Sam halted at the corner, peering past. His shoulders dropped, letting Dean know that no one was loitering outside. The younger Winchester tossed another glance over his shoulder, this time informing Dean that he was about to move. Dean tried to make himself believe that he was ready to follow, but he was worried his spaghetti legs wouldn't hold his weight much longer.
When Sam carefully glided around the corner, Dean dragged himself along in his wake. He could feel the sweat building on his brow now, beginning to simmer in the heat. He swallowed thickly, wishing he'd taken a larger gulp of water before leaving the Impala, even though it had been nauseatingly lukewarm. He watched as Sam examined each entrance, cautious but swift as he scanned for signs of life.
They had nearly reached the halfway mark when Dean saw his brother tense up. Sam was alert, rigid like a Pointer. He paused before the small entrance to the hangar, letting Dean's gaze follow his to the sliver of light peeking from beneath the entryway. The large, electronic door was firmly shut, to their relief. It meant that Manning wasn't ready to go, yet. Dean nodded at Sam, signalling his readiness to put their plan into action. The younger man was wearing the pinched expression that always signified resigned disapproval and conflicting emotions. Sam was far from happy with the plan, but he couldn't exactly argue either.
Sam turned to his big brother, nailing him with an implicit be careful. Dean could only offer a flimsy smile in response before accepting the duffel with his free hand.
Sam reached forward and tried the handle, easing it downwards with a studious, fluid movement. Dean hated to be so incapacitated, but with one arm strapped up in a sling, he couldn't hold the duffel and open the door. There was a dull clink and an excruciating scrape, making both men wince involuntarily, but then the door eased inward without a sound. The brothers stood still for several beats, holding their breath. When nothing and no one jumped out at them, Dean gathered his strength and stepped forwards, slipping through the doorway.
The light was dimmer than he'd expected, two utilitarian, fluorescent strips suspended from the flat, corrugated roof casting a pallid light down onto the small Cessna craft. It was an off-white colour, wings spread out and up like a gliding possum. Its snout was bulbous, a propeller – stationary – attached to its tip, and its wheels were planted wide apart in the classic gunman's stance. There was a shuffling, tinkering noise coming from the other side, towards the rear, and Dean could see legs when he bent to catch a glimpse under the craft's belly.
Dean crept forward, steeling himself as he debated whether to go front or back. He decided that the rear would be easiest for his brother to get to, so he stalked towards the nose of the craft, very aware of the heaviness of his breathing in the stifling space. As he grew nearer, he began to pick up a low, mumbling sound, the words becoming crisper as he started to round the propeller.
The same words Marsha Parrish had used, he was sure of it.
"Hey Ipkiss!" Dean bellowed as he swung around to the other side of the Cessna. The first thing he saw was the mask's leering grimace as it swivelled to face him. "'Fraid I'm gonna have to stop ya there, buddy," he growled, fighting back images of the masked Erikson at the mall, robotically gunning down civilians as they fled.
Manning's eyes were wide and white behind the mask, his pupils shrunk to pinpricks. There was no emotion, just milky blankness.
"Yeah, that's right, come and get it!" Dean goaded, beaming Manning his widest, most irritating grin. The one he usually reserved for pissing off his brother.
It worked. Manning carefully set down the object he'd been clutching – a canister, most likely fuel of some kind, Dean noted – and stepped with deliberateness towards the elder Winchester. The ancient Aztec, or whatever the hell it was he was muttering, seemed to increase in volume and urgency. Manning's hands tightened into fists, thick veins bulging starkly on his forearms. He continued mechanically forwards, a horrible inevitability about the steps.
Any time, Sammy. Dean swallowed, nervous. He was in no position to fight off the hopped up pilot, and he knew it.
Beginning to step away, he finally caught sight of his brother sneaking up from the back end of the Cessna. But Dean schooled his features, using his inscrutable poker face to hide Sam's approach. He stood his ground, meeting Manning's creepy, intent eyes. And waited, heart pounding.
Dean purposefully avoided looking at his brother, but a lifetime of surviving together, of finishing each other's thoughts and knowing what the other was about to do before they did it...all of it meant that the elder hunter could tell from the faintest movement in his periphery that Sam was about to make his move.
When his brother leapt for Manning, Dean was ready. He heard the thud of colliding bodies, the grunts, groans and gasps. The smacking of pounded flesh. But he couldn't take advantage of his ringside seat; there was work to be done. He tried to block out the sounds of the fight as he dropped to a crouch. His legs shook and wobbled at the strain of his position as he fumbled to unzip the duffel of spell ingredients with his left hand. The zip moved in fits and starts, and Dean's pulse quickened further as he felt the pressure to get the spell set up. The fear that his kid brother would get hurt because of his own incompetence spurred him on.
Finally getting the duffel open, he upended it, tipping the contents out onto the concrete with a clatter. He grabbed the small pewter bowl and began adding the ingredients. He started with the base of dog blood and ground bones that Sam had mixed the previous day, sprinkling and stirring in the different spices as the spell dictated. Parts of the incantation had to be read as each item was added but Sam would do the final, extended rite once the spell had been prepared.
Grasping for the last baggie of ground Cayenne pepper, Dean heard Sam grunt out a "Guh!" of pain. His head snapped up, and he caught sight of his reeling brother, bloody-nosed and breathing heavily. Worried for Sam, he couldn't help but watch, the baggie still clutched, unopened in his fist. Seeing his brother's gun lying a few feet away, where Sam had evidently dropped it during the fight, Dean quickly set the last ingredient down and scuttled over to it. He snatched it up and pivoted unsteadily back to the continuing brawl. Sam had gotten in another solid right hook, but he was listing like a ship in distress.
"Look alive, Sammy!" Dean yelled, tossing the gun toward his brother. Even with his weaker hand, his aim was true, and Sam caught it with a businesslike flick of his wrist. Dean watched as the younger man lifted the gun high and brought the butt heavily down on Manning's head. The pilot went down like a sack of potatoes.
And when the unexpected blow came from behind, so did Dean.