The first thing he was aware of was a nagging headache that was mildly throbbing behind his eyes. The second was that he was lying on something very soft. The third was the slight vibrations shaking through the mattress. That, at least, he recognized. Sam was snoring away on the bed beside him. There was another sound, fainter, a clicking sound that he'd never heard before.
Frowning, he realized he was going to have to open his eyes to assess his situation any further. He forced his eyes open, blinking as the dim light from a small lamp across the room scorched through his retinas.
"Is the light too bright?" an older woman asked. Dean nodded, and was rewarded with an immediate dimming of the offensive brilliance. At least now he could keep his eyes open. Rita was sitting in a chair across from his bed, knitting something. Turning a little, Dean felt his brothers form near pressed up against his back.
Rita chuckled at his expression. "He wouldn't leave until you woke up, but almost fell asleep in this chair. I convinced him to grab a nap while you were out. You gave him quite a scare."
Dean smiled. "Thank you," he croaked. His voice felt scratchy with disuse, and his muscles were telling him he'd been asleep for some time. The niggling headache had faded nicely to the background. Glancing at the night stand, he saw a pitcher of lemonade. Rita instantly followed his gaze and poured him a glass, keeping her hand on the bottom of it as his shaking muscles made it difficult to hold it still.
"Thank you," he repeated, stronger this time. He would have preferred water, but the lemonade was surprisingly refreshing and cooled his itchy throat. "And thank you for making sure he slept."
Rita shrugged. "I tried to talk him into his own room, but he wouldn't have anything to do with the idea. These beds just weren't meant for two full grown men, sadly. I was afraid he would wake you."
"We're used to sharing tight quarters. How long was I out?" He didn't know exactly how long, but a twinge in his back told him it had been longer than he'd slept in a long time.
"About sixteen hours. Doc Brown gave you a sedative that would keep the nightmares away for a while. It obviously worked," Rita smiled. "What do you remember?"
Dean pinched the bridge of his nose, careful to keep his movements small so he wouldn't wake his brother. He wished Sam was awake so he could lead him, let him know how much Rita already knew, but he knew his brother had been worried about him lately. Dean's nightmares had kept them both up.
"I don't- I was at the shop, with Joe. Sam had just arrived with lunch and Joe made a beeline for the pie. Must be some pie you make," Dean grinned, attempting to keep it light, though he knew she wouldn't be distracted for long. "Apparently, you threatening to take it away got me the job. Thank you, for that."
Rita grinned and winked at him. "The secret is in the crust. What else do you remember?"
"Nothing. I was talking to Sam, and next thing I know, I've got my brother using me as his personal teddy bear."
Rita nodded. "You scared Sam and Joe plenty when you collapsed. Doc Brown came over to have a look at you. Exhausted and not eating enough. Said you'd be fine after some sleep. How do you feel?"
"A lot better, actually."
Sam stirred beside him, grunting in his sleep, but didn't wake. Rita noticed the way Dean almost held his breath to make sure he didn't facilitate waking his brother, and the way he relaxed once it was obvious Sam hadn't been disturbed.
"Sam told me about your nightmares," Rita started, hoping to get a little more information than what Sam had given her. A part of her had smelled a half lie, and wanted to see what Dean would say without prior knowledge.
Dean cast about his mind frantically, sensing she was fishing for something. Sam would have been smart enough to know he couldn't outright lie to the older woman. He also wouldn't have given away their secret. He nodded. There was only one event in their lives that would be civilian safe.
"When I was young, I saw my mother die. It creeps up on me sometimes, especially in places like this- that feel like a home, even if it's not my home."
Rita smiled gently, content now that she'd received the same story from the brothers. "I'm sorry to hear about that. I still have nightmares about my Bill sometimes."
Dean nodded. He couldn't believe it, but he was still tired. He didn't feel comfortable falling asleep in front of her, though. He knew this time there would be a nightmare. He smiled. "I appreciate you sitting with me, Rita, but I'm all right now."
She scanned him with those piercing eyes, and he did his best to project a picture of health. Whatever she saw, she nodded and started gathering her knitting materials, sensing her care was making him uncomfortable. She understood. People who generally spent their lives taking care of others didn't often know how to accept being cared for themselves.
"You will be when you get some breakfast in you. Joe's given you the day off tomorrow, so don't worry about hopping out of bed."
"Thank you, Rita," Dean expressed genuinely. Though the moment his door closed, so did his eyes. Another hour of sleep, he decided, then he would wake Sam to let him know he was okay. They could go over what they had found.
Just one hour.
Sam looked up as Dean made his way into the dining room, lured by the smell of breakfast. His brother was still a little pale, and a little shaky from too much sleep, but otherwise appeared much better than he had for a while. The undisturbed sleep had obviously done him some good.
Without a word, Sam stood and filled a plate from the assortment of pancakes, bacon, eggs, sausage and ham that was laid out. He slathered toast with homemade marmalade, making sure to keep away from anything greasy that would upset Dean's delicate stomach. He didn't over load the plate, but made sure there was enough for a solid meal. A fraction of the devastation a normally healthy Dean would make of the meal, but still probably more than Dean would be able to eat.
Dean nodded at his brother, grasping his wrist briefly to let him know he was really okay. Without a word, he did his best to do justice to what seemed to him a huge meal.
Rita, who had been watching, nodded approvingly. She turned to the younger brother. "Fred Collins called me this morning about your missed appointment. I told him something had come up, and rescheduled you for this morning. You need to be there by ten."
Sam's mouth popped open in surprise, but then he closed it. The sooner he realized this investigation wasn't going to be kept a secret, the sooner he could stop looking and feeling like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "Thank you, Rita."
Dean grinned at his younger brother, feeling for all the world like he had when they'd been kids, and Sam had been caught doing something he shouldn't. He had to pop a piece of pancake- sans syrup or butter, much to his simultaneous relief and disgust- into his mouth to keep from sticking out his tongue and saying 'nah-nah'. Sam scowled, letting Dean know his expression had given away the temptation.
"And you should take it easy today, Dean. Doc Brown said nothing more strenuous than watching television," Rita announced.
Now it was Dean's turn to scowl as Sam failed to resist Dean's earlier temptation and stuck out his tongue.
Dean was struck the normality of the whole thing mid scowl. Rita was moving around, fussing over breakfast, sternly instructing Sam to be well behaved at his appointment with the coroner, while his brother ate contentedly, nodding his head in the right places, but clearly more concerned with his plate than her advice.
"John, don't forget Dean's got an appointment with the doctor this afternoon for his immunizations," Mary reminded her husband as he turned the page of the paper. "You know he doesn't like it when I take him."
Flicking the paper to hide his expression from his wife, John made a face at his four year old son. As if he had seen it, six month old Sammy let out a squeal of laughter from his high chair. Dean giggled, ducking his head as Mary turned from the coffee maker to eye all three disapprovingly, somehow sensing something had happened.
"I'll see if I can get off work early today," John answered smoothly, rising from his chair to give her a kiss, placating her.
Mary nodded, accepting the peace offering, letting out a tinkling laugh that always made Dean smile. He took in his family this morning, knowing even at such a tender age that these moments were to be appreciated. He felt safe, loved and wanted. This was his entire world standing in the kitchen, and it was all his.
Sam looked up in concern as Dean suddenly pushed back from the table and made his way to the bathroom. Glancing at his plate, Sam was disappointed to see Dean hadn't managed to eat more than a quarter of it. He excused himself with a glance at Rita before following his brother. Standing outside the door, he could hear Dean bringing up what little he had eaten.
Sam frowned. Instinctively he knew this had very little to do with Dean's stomach, and everything to do with the scene in the dining room this morning. He wracked his brain, replaying every movement and word, to try and locate the source of Dean's upset, but he couldn't. Knocking lightly on the door, Sam called out to his brother. "You okay?"
"Just give me a minute," Dean called back.
Inside the bathroom, Dean leaned his forehead against the cool porcelain of the toilet seat. The vision that had bombarded him had felt so real, like he had actually been standing in their kitchen in Lawrence watching the scene play out.
He remembered that morning very clearly. It had been the last time his family had been together like that. His world had fallen apart later that night. The memory was burned into his mind. He had kept it on the edge of his mind for his entire life, a reminder of just what he was fighting for. He had never told Sam about it.
It was the first time it had happened while he was awake. He had finally recognized the nightmares. They were memories from his past. It was why they had felt so familiar. But why, then, were they so terrifying? What the hell was happening to him? If it was a spell, it was the weirdest he had ever been under. Given his life, that was really saying something.
"Dean, please." Sam's voice from the other side of the door was anxious. He didn't like being shut out, but Dean knew that his younger brother couldn't understand. Their memories were so different, their perspectives of their childhood almost completely opposite. In a very real way, they had grown up in two different worlds, and Dean had always done his best to protect his brother from the one he'd had.
Still, he couldn't stay hidden in here forever, and his dry heaves had stopped some minutes ago. Forcing himself to his feet, he opened the door and made his way to his room, knowing without looking that Sam would follow him. If they had to have this conversation, it was better done in private.
Sam closed the door behind him, watching as Dean practically collapsed onto the bed, curling himself around a pillow tucked into his stomach. The position made Dean look small and vulnerable, two words Sam would never seriously have applied to his brother before. Worried, Sam sat on the bed behind his brother, needing the little reassurance the light contact of his hand on Dean's hip gave him.
"Are you okay?"
Dean grunted. "Stomach's upset. Think I ate too fast."
"Dean," Sam sighed, the one word heavy with exasperation and concern.
"I don't know, Sammy. I wish I did, but I don't," Dean lied. For now, he had to keep this to himself. It didn't seem as if there was anything he could do about it, so there was no point in worrying his brother any more than he already was.
"Maybe we should call Bobby," Sam suggested, knowing his brother was keeping something from him, but also knowing that Dean wouldn't talk until he was damn well good and ready to.
Dean shook his head. "There isn't anything he can do, and frankly, I'm not really up to anymore concoctions from hell."
"Well we have to do something," Sam growled in frustration.
Dean nodded. "You have to get over to see the coroner in twenty minutes, and honestly, I could really use a nap."
"You can't honestly expect me to still go?" Sam asked incredulously. "You're sick, Dean, whether you want to admit it or not."
Dean closed his eyes, equally frustrated with his brother. "Fine. I'm sick. But you being here isn't going to change it. We're Hunting, Sam. We have a job to do, and we're going to do it. After you see Collins, I want you to head out to the Holders Ranch. Talk to Randy. He might appreciate another academic to talk to, and you'd probably recognize the books he's using better than me. Just go easy with him. He's got CHD."
"You mentioned him yesterday before you fainted."
Dean scowled. "I did not faint. I passed out. Women faint, Sam, men drop, collapse, or manfully pass out."
Unable to resist the tease, Sam chuckled. "I don't know, dude. Ask Joe, you swooned right into my arms."
"Sam, you've got 10 seconds to get out of this room, or I'll tell Rita you're upsetting me," Dean threatened menacingly.
Sam chuckled, holding up his hands in defeat. "All right, I'm going. You need your beauty sleep, after all."
"Bitch," Dean threw out as Sam opened the door.
Sam looked around the small room. He felt a little odd standing here in jeans and a hoodie. They would have normally been standing here in suits, pretending to be some federal agent or another. He pushed away the thought that they would normally be doing this together. It was a little too raw to explore at the moment. Unfortunately, in a town as small as Faith had proven to be, they couldn't afford to change their alias'. He hoped Collins was as talkative as the rest of the town seemed to be. Being a journalism student would give him some ground with the civilians, but not here. By law, Collins could only tell him so much. On principle, even less.
"Sam?" Fred called, walking into the cold room. "Right on time."
Sam nodded, wondering why no one ever seemed to use a last name around here, except when naming a particular ranch. "Thank you for seeing me, Dr. Collins."
The coroner shrugged. "Call me Fred. And it was no problem. Not a lot to do around here."
"So these deaths are pretty out of place?"
"Yes, though I haven't decided if that makes it better or worse."
Sam frowned. "What do you mean by that?"
"I moved to Rapid City just out of medical school. After the flood of '72, I had decided I'd seen enough dead bodies to last me a life time. So I came here. Seems trouble eventually comes calling everywhere. It was peaceful here for years, until these started happening."
"Can you recall the names of the other victims?" Sam asked.
Collins shook his head. "I'm sorry, I can't release that information to the press."
Sam nodded his understanding, and carefully bottled his frustration. "I have a source that says the blood had been evaporated? The internal organs cooked?"
Collins grimaced. "Gruesome way to die. Judging from the signs of trauma on the victims, they were still alive at least half way through the process."
"But there was never any marks found on the bodies? No burns implicating a heat source?"
"You seem to be well informed for an amateur journalist," Fred stated, frowning a little. He kept studying Sam, as if he were looking for a hint of something.
Feeling uncomfortable under the scrutiny, Sam shrugged. "You don't get very far in this business if you're not one of the best." And he was in no way speaking of journalism. He couldn't shake the feeling that Collins knew that, too.
"Well, then you know I can't release the details."
Realizing he was going to have to tread carefully, Sam chewed on his bottom lip. For whatever reason, Collins was still talking to him, and was trying to find ways to give him the information he needed. He just had to be very selective of the questions he asked. Confirming suspicions was obviously very different from directly giving information.
"Have you ever seen anything like it before?"
"Nope. And hope I never do again. Whatever did it, I hope it's long gone."
Sam frowned as he caught the word play. "Whatever? Don't you mean whoever?"
Collins leaned forward. "Son, nothing human could have done that, not as cleanly as it was. There wasn't even so much as a drop of blood found on the scene. Look, no more games. I know who you and your brother are, I know what you do."
Surprised, Sam shifted uncomfortably. Deciding that not denying it was the best way to confirm it, he asked, "How much do you know about it?"
"My uncle was a Hunter. I never got into the lifestyle myself, but Uncle Craig made sure I knew enough to keep safe, or to alert the right people if I ever came across something like this. Unfortunately, my uncle died a decade ago, and I never knew any of his contacts. I, for one, am glad you boys are here."
"Do you have any theories on what might have caused these deaths?"
Fred shook his head. "Like I said, I don't know very much. All I know is that whatever is happening in this town is supernatural in nature. I do have one lead, though, a connection between the victims. The five hands, they'd all done something wrong, something either illegal or immoral. Marie, she was in the middle of something big, something that would have changed this town forever. Whatever is doing it, is killing these people to make sure the town never changes."
Sam frowned. Dean had been right in his suspicions. They were obviously dealing with a witch. Demons generally didn't need a motive to kill. Witches, unfortunately, were harder to deal with. They were human, after all, and Hunters didn't kill humans. They would have to locate the source of her power and destroy it.
"Fred, have you noticed anyone acting strangely around town? Were there any marks on the bodies to suggest the deaths might have been ritualistic?" Sam asked, glad he didn't have to find a way to skirt around the question.
"Like I said, there wasn't a mark on the bodies. Not even so much as a fingernail out of place. The throats were raw, though, like they had been screaming. But there were no defensive wounds, no signs of a fight. It was like they burned up from the inside standing where they were."
"What about the cattle?"
"I never saw them. I've heard from a couple of gossiping hands that it was the same thing, only there was blood everywhere. Like someone was practicing."
Sam rubbed his forehead. "Thank you, Fred, for all your help."
Fred nodded and stood, reaching out to shake the younger man’s hand. "I hope you and your brother find it. I've had my fill of dead bodies, and it seems I attract the most gruesome. I'd like to retire knowing whatever it is, is dead."
"We'll do our best, Dr. Collins."
Randy looked up at the tall stranger, instantly seeing the relation to the new mechanic. He smiled and waved the man inside, knowing his parents were out working.
"So, Randy, Dean asked me to come by and see how you were doing," Sam explained as they entered what appeared to be a library. He whistled. The entire room was floor to ceiling shelves, and all lined with books. Old, new, every genre seemed to be available to the obviously ill young teen. There was a comfortable couch in the middle of the room, and a coffee table that was stacked with still more books.
"Sorry for the mess. Sometimes I can't get around to putting the books away," Randy apologized.
"It's okay. I'm a little jealous, if you want to know the truth. I would have killed for a set up like this," Sam answered honestly.
Randy shrugged. "I can't do much around the ranch, so this keeps me occupied and out of everyone's way."
Sam perused the books. There were books in near every language, and for the first time, he noticed display cases of skeletons and fossils of various animals. "Were you home schooled?"
"I couldn't go to class like the other kids, so my parents hired a permanent tutor, a retired professor."
"And do you like him?"
Randy grinned. "He's great. He used to teach archeology at a fancy university. Sometimes we go out digging in the fields for bones. It's usually only animal bones, but he makes it exciting, like even if we only found a dead fox today, tomorrow it might be a dinosaur. In 1990, an amateur paleontologist found the most complete T-Rex skeleton- in the Hell Creek formation near here- that had been discovered to date. So you never know. It could happen."
Sam smiled, impressed with the teen’s knowledge, and picked out a book. "Latin?"
"When you spend your life dealing with doctors, and medical terms, you decide pretty early on that understanding the language is important. My parents spent years trying to shield me from my condition, until they finally realized it was driving me insane. After that, they did whatever they could to help me learn," Randy explained.
Sam nodded, putting the book back. Most of the latin books were philosophy or medical texts. He couldn't see anything that looked like a spell book. "So what do you want to do when you grow up?"
Randy smiled. "Wow, you guys really are brothers." Surprised, Sam turned to face the teen. "Dean talked like that, too. Like I had a future, and that it was mine to decide what to do with."
"I take it most people don't talk to you like that?"
Randy shook his head sadly. "They mean well, the folks from town, but they try so hard to avoid words like 'future', 'career', and 'growing up'. Mostly, it's a lot of religious spouting that makes me realize I'm a good person for not strangling them."
Sam chuckled. "So? What do you want to do?"
Randy shrugged, moving slowly along the shelves, touching each book lightly as though they were his most prized possession. Given the glimpse into his life, Sam realized they probably were. "There's so much I want to do. Professor Knight teases me all the time that I would probably be a lifelong student if I ever had the chance to go to university."
Sam grinned. "My professors at Stanford used to say the same about me."
Randy sighed. "I think, if I was going to dream big, I would like to spend my life doing research. Not just for one subject, though. For a lot of different subjects. Sort of like a freelance researcher for hire."
Sam smiled. "Sounds like fun. Hard work, though. You'd have to prove yourself over and over again."
Randy looked at him, and Sam couldn't help but admire the sparkle of fire in his eyes. "But that's half the fun, you know. I could be a professional show off, without having to be an athlete or an actor."
Sam laughed, delighting in the kids spirit. He could see why Dean had grown a little attached to the kid. "You're right. Sounds like a ton of fun."
"So, how's Dean? I heard that he was sick yesterday?"
Sam's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Wow. I can't believe how fast information travels around here."
Randy grinned. "Small town. Strangers arriving is always big news, especially when one of them collapses in a very visible parking lot. So, is he okay?"
"He's fine. Just needs a day off."
Randy frowned. "He said he knew something about counting days. He's not really sick, like big bad sick, is he?"
Surprised again, Sam shook his head. Dean wasn't normally so open, but then, he'd always had a soft spot for kids, whether he'd admit it or not. "He's not sick. But we've had our share of bad experiences. I guess that's what he was talking about."
Lie. Dean had been talking about the deal he'd made to save Sam. But as much as he wanted to ask Randy what they had talked about, somehow he suspected that it had been a private moment between the two of them.
Randy nodded, accepting. He knew it was more than that, but wasn't willing to press it. "So, you're doing an article on Marie Miller's death?"
"Yeah," Sam agreed, happy with the change in subject. "It's a little hard, though, when everyone in town knows my next step before I do. I can't help but get the feeling that they're giving me prepared answers."
"Maybe I can help. I hear a lot. People tend to treat me like I'm invisible once they're finished their polite God's Will speech."
Sam smiled. "Small town with small minds?"
Randy grinned, liking Sam as much as he had liked his brother. "Yeah, exactly."
"Have you heard any strange rumors about the deaths?"
"There was some rumors about witches a while back. Toby, one of the ranch hands that works here, says they can hide anywhere. That they'll kill you in your sleep and that they eat babies. Professor Knight says people believe what Hollywood feeds them, that witchcraft, in some form or another, has been present in every culture in the world since the dawn of humanity."
"And what do you believe?"
"I believe that something killed those people horribly, and that it has folks running scared. Scared people do and say stupid things. Especially in a close community like this. It's funny, though, that they're more willing to believe in witches then they are that one of their neighbors might have done it," Randy pointed out.
"Rita says a lot of ranch hands come and go around here. Has there been any speculation that it might be one of them?" Sam asked curiously. Randy might be sickly, but the boy was obviously far from stupid. He was insightful in a way that wasn't normally associated with children his age, but then, he'd spent his life immersed in books telling him about a world he'd never see. It wasn't surprising that it had made him hyper aware of his own world.
"Strangers don't get a lot of room to do something like that around here. As you've noticed yourself, folks keep a pretty close eye on them. Toby's been here for years, and is still watched like a hawk. Cole, the pub manager, he was accepted near as family the minute he took control of the pub. If I was going to look into anyone, it would be him."
"Has he ever done anything to be suspicious about?"
Randy chuckled. "No, but then, killers usually don't, do they?"
Sam tilted his head, conceding the point while still mentally adding him to the list of people he needed to talk to. "These deaths don't seem to scare you much," he pointed out curiously.
"Being an outsider, I guess I'm not really considered part of 'the mob' mentality that happens when events like this strike. I love the folks around here, I really do, but if they'd put as much effort into finding the killer as they do gossiping about it, Marie might not be dead."
"Don't suppose you happen to know the secret to Rita's pies? That's the real mystery Dean wants solved," Sam teased, feeling the need to lighten the subject a little. Randy was only a kid, after all. Just because he could talk like an adult didn't make him one, and Sam didn't particularly want to drag him any further into this than he already had.
Randy shook his head. "No one knows that. Only Rita. She claims it's an old family recipe, but no one around here knows her family."
Frowning, Sam leaned forward. "What do you mean?"
"Rita's been old for as long as I can remember. It's an expression you'll hear from a lot of townsfolk. No one remembers her parents, or if she moved here, no one remembers from where. Rita and Bill were just always there, sort of like the support beams in your house. Something you take for granted until it breaks. When Bill died, there was a lot of speculation because Rita didn't have a funeral."
"Judy Somers said that it was a fact of life, men dying young around here. Is it unusual to not have a funeral?"
"These are church going folks. Every Sunday, the church is the busiest place in town. Death is a part of the lifestyle. Stampedes happen, people get hurt on farm equipment, someone falls off a horse or a tractor goes into the ditch. There are a hundred different ways to die here. The funerals are almost as important as the jobs themselves. People need closure, need to believe that it's God's Will, to keep doing it."
"But Rita didn't have one?"
Randy shook his head. "It was a big thing around town for a long time. Not enough to stop going to the Pub, or to stop sending freshly hired hands to the Bed, but enough to get tongues wagging." He glanced at the clock. "It was great talking to you, Sam, but Professor Knight is going to be here for my afternoon lessons very soon, and I have a little homework to do before he gets here."
Standing, Sam automatically reached out to shake the teens hand. He didn't have the heart to withdraw it when he saw how much the simple gesture meant to the youth as a thin hand gripped his own lightly. "It was nice to meet you, too, Randy. I might be back to steal a look through some of your books," Sam grinned.
Randy nodded, but his face was serious, and the hand that had been lightly in his tightened considerably. "Sam, I know this is going to sound strange, but be careful, okay?"
"Sure, Randy, but why?"
Randy shook his head again. "I don't know. I just- just be careful, and watch Dean's back. He can try to fit in all he wants, but it's pretty obvious he's not just a mechanic. If I can tell, sooner or later, someone else is going to notice it too. And by association, that means you're not just a reporter."
Stunned, Sam nodded and left. He was just reaching over to turn on the ignition the rental truck when he realized that twice in one day, two people had told him they knew who he was, or that he wasn't what he was claiming to be.Suddenly, Randy's warning seemed a little more credible.