Chapter 9. The kid inside
Chapter 9. The kid inside
For Dean, their old house had meant many things over the years. The first four years of his life, it had meant simply safety and warmness. It had been the place to get back to after a day at school, or an afternoon at the park. The place where his parents had kissed him good night when he went to sleep, and good morning when he woke up. It had been the first place in which he had seen Sammy, tucked in a blue blanket with white clouds, when John and Mary had brought him home from the hospital. And it was the last place in which he remembered his mother loving him, and his father laughing.
One terrible night, that warmness had turned into an inferno. Dean could still remember flames, as hungry as a beast, roaring along the familiar walls, the ceiling, and the furniture. He had never experienced viciousness before, but as he had run down the corridor with baby Sam in his arms, he had physically felt the fierceness of death claiming its prey. Gusts of scorching air had replaced the oxygen in his little lungs and had burned his tears away before they could roll down his cheeks. Gasping for air, Dean had learned what death meant. And blinking the sting of dry tears away, Dean had learned not to cry.
The fire had burned up any sense of safety in him and left him empty and lost. For the next five years of his young life, a defensive fear had taken hold of him anytime he came near the house, and he still instinctively fought tooth and nail against the building's pull on him. It was a pull that he just couldn't understand since the beckoning felt like his mother, sounded like his mother, but he knew that it couldn't be her. Everybody said that his mother was dead, and so, if he responded to the call, wouldn't that mean that he was dead too?
The innocent child he had once been had been killed inside those walls, and the Dean that had come out became a survivor. That Dean didn't want to die. But that was something that John didn't seem to understand, since he had kept prodding him to go back to the house and had remained oblivious of his eldest son's feelings. On some level, Dean knew that these thoughts were probably a bit unfair; John couldn't know how Dean felt, since Dean had never explained his feelings to him. But the thing was that Dean had only been five the first time his father had tried to return to their old home, and Dean had still thought of his father as a superhero who knew absolutely everything in the world. Unfortunately, such a belief had made it harder to understand why his father insisted on taking him to the house. Sometimes, Dean had even gotten to think his father wanted to finish what the fire had started, because it was Mary who had been meant to live, and not Dean. One night, when Dean was nine, and they were finally back at their apartment after one of the trips to the house, Dean had felt his father's tired eyes lingering on him and had fidgeted under his gaze.
"I'm sorry, Dad," Dean had murmured.
"For what?" John had questioned awkwardly
"For being alive."
At a complete loss, John had gaped at his son with the saddest expression Dean had ever seen on his face, even sadder than the one he wore when he thought about his mother. The kid had figured that the moisture glistening on his father's eyes had meant that his father was sorry for the same reasons, and that Dean was right. He hadn't been able to stand watching his father suffer like that and had decided that the next time John took him along with him to the house he'd comply and go to Mary, if that was what his father wanted.
However, there hadn't been a next time. The following morning, John had made Sam and him pack, and before noon they had taken off from Lawrence. At the time, it had seemed like it would be for good.
Things had changed since then. The Winchesters had moved on. Sort of. But Dean still thought of John as a superhero who was always right, and he never was able to shake off the feeling that he owed something to him. Every now and then, when John stared at him lost in thought, Dean felt the urge to apologize, although he didn't remember for what anymore. In a similar way he had locked the fear that had been born on the night of the fire into the deepest corner of his mind and had thrown away the key. And now, years later the house was simply his reason and the reminder of his loss.
Two days ago, the house had become his mission. Entering it had been like opening Pandora's Box, since all the previous definitions and sensations associated with trespassing the threshold had jumped over him and crushed him at once. The safety, the warmth, the death, the longing, the fear, the loss, and the mission had mixed up and together had become overwhelming.
He could have sworn the Pandora myth said something about hope hiding somewhere, so maybe he only had to dig up a bit to find it. However, so far in Dean's life all the digging up he had carried out had inexorably led to finding a nasty skeleton he was required to salt and burn. This time didn't seem like it was really going to be that different, just that now the skeleton was his mother's.
Above all, for Dean the house had always been attached to his mother. Now, at age 26, it had become his enemy.
Something was definitely not right.
Holding his breath, Sam kept his movements slow and intent as he stepped into the hall and closed the door behind him with a soft click. Hovering over his brother's back, the young hunter scanned his surroundings carefully. Sam sensed something was off the moment he put his feet beyond the door, only he wasn't able to tell if that "something" was him or the house. At first, he told to himself he was too tense and because of that his mind was ready to blow any sensation out of proportion. Sam narrowed his eyes and sharpened his senses, in order to pick out whatever vibes might be found in the air. But he sensed nothing concrete, only an increasing feeling of uneasiness that was too real to be only in his imagination. Dean had told him that he could feel their mother's presence. And Sam believed him. She was here, somewhere in the house. But he was unable to find her in the thick darkness of the hall, or hear her voice in the oppressive silence. As his eyes grew used to the moonlight, his focused hypersensitivity rewarded him with a shiver across his spine.
"What are you doing?" Dean asked, flashing a glance over his shoulder to check on his brother.
The half-light of the hall didn't allow them to lock eyes, but the certainty that they were close helped Sam to stay calm and focused. For Jennifer and her children. For both their sakes.
"Nothing," Sam said, shrugging.
Dean observed his little brother until the younger hunter looked away. The truth was that since his meeting with Missouri, Sam felt a little awkward inside his own body, but he couldn't explain why. He gulped and toyed with the idea of dropping his psychic experiments for the moment to focus on the solidity of the EMF in his hand.
"Check the living room," his older brother said. "I'll take the kitchen."
"I don't think splitting up is a good idea."
"We're not splitting up. Just take a quick scan and meet me back here in five minutes."
"Are you sure?"
"Just do it, Sam."
Sam scoffed but followed Dean's directives, because he knew that arguing in the middle of a job was the quickest way to screw it up. However, this time he was determined to keep a close watch on his brother, and he wasn't going to give in so easily.
"You know? At some point you're going to have to stop treating me like a child," Sam commented as he began to scan the room with the EMF detector. He kept his voice low but loud enough so that Dean could hear him from the next room of the silent floor.
"Please, tell me this isn't your geeky way of playing Marco-Polo with me," Dean's voice came from the kitchen with a similar moderated volume.
Sam smiled to himself, but he deliberately held his tongue.
It didn't take long before Dean's voice broke the silence again.
"See? That's just childish."
Sam's inner smile reached his lips triumphantly.
"Sammy? If you want me to keep talking you better give me some conversation."
Sam chuckled. Over the years, he had become a master at pissing Dean off and had found it very useful at keeping anxiety at bay.
"Jesus, I can't believe I'm doing this," Dean grouched. "Marco?"
Sam resumed the scan and sighed.
"Clear," he informed Dean.
He returned to the hall in time to see Dean stepping out of the kitchen with an accusatory face.
"Clear," the older Winchester also said. "And that wasn't funny."
Sam shrugged innocently and busied himself with the detector, but then Dean gasped softly, and Sam's attention shifted back to him.
His eyes were already accustomed to the dim light, so he was able to make out the shadowy forms of furniture in the living room at his right, the stairs in front of him and the kitchen past them. Dean was near the stairs and shuddering slightly when Sam's voice seemed to pull him from the distance. He turned his head a couple of inches towards Sam but not enough to meet his brother's eyes.
"Dude, what is it?"
Dean tightened his grip on the rock salt gun, and his eyes darted apprehensively around him.
"You didn't hear that?" Dean rasped.
Dean made a cautious step forward. Sam mimicked him, attentive to what might be hiding in the dark, while keeping a watchful eye on his brother.
"Hear what, Dean?" he insisted.
"I don't know. I thought I heard a kid."
"A kid?" Sam said, frowning and lowering his voice. "You think Jennifer's kids are here?"
Dean advanced to the stairs where he leaned a hand on the banister, took a deep breath and ran his other hand over his forehead. Sam noticed that he was sweating.
"It's hot in here," Dean whispered, more to himself than to anyone else.
"Dean?" Sam called hesitantly. The absence of eye-contact with his brother was starting to unnerve him, and he hadn't forgotten his brother's recent memory induced blackouts. "You're with me, right?"
Dean nodded vaguely, but when Sam approached him, Dean's breath hitched.
"Hey," Sam started.
A flickering light in his hand called his attention back to the EMF detector. The contrast between the frantic dancing of the light bars and the apparent quietness of the house sent his heart rate to the skies.
"What the hell?" Sam grumbled.
He tensed and turned around, braced to block whatever kind of supernatural blow was to come. But there was nothing there. No physical signs of a presence, no voices, noises or visible energy whatsoever. He should be able to pick them up if they were present, Sam told himself. But the more he concentrated, the surer he was that nothing was attacking them for the moment.
At least, nothing was attacking him.
His brother's pained groan made Sam jump, and he barely had time to grab Dean by the arms when the older hunter swayed forwards with his head in his hands.
"My head…" Dean panted.
Alarmed, Sam supported his brother's weight when Dean's head slumped against his shoulder.
"Don't you hear him?" Dean wheezed. "Sam, don't you hear him?"
"No," Sam said, shaking his head earnestly.
Sam placed a steadying hand on the nape of his brother's neck, and kept the other on his arm in case Dean's knees gave way. The episode lasted only a few seconds, and afterwards Dean supported his own weight, and pressed his temples hard for a moment before simply letting his hands drop and rest shakily on Sam's arms. He idly fingered the fabric of Sam's shirt as he caught his breath.
"That's enough," Sam muttered, unable to keep worry out of his voice. "We're getting out of here now."
"No!" Dean grunted.
He straightened and shoved Sam off. Frowning darkly as his back found the banister, he leaned against it as he attempted to get his bewildered thoughts in order. When he eventually managed to raise his eyes, it was to an unwelcome sight.
Sam noticed Dean looking past him, and the younger hunter turned with baited breath to follow his brother's gaze. Given the shocked look that had settled over Dean's face, Sam was prepared to set eyes on some horrific sight but saw nothing other than the living room door. Facing his brother questioningly, Sam noticed Dean's eyes weren't focused on him…or anything in the room.
"Dean? Look at me, bro."
Dean gulped and set his clouded eyes on Sam. There was fear in them, and confusion, and also stubbornness and strength. Dean was in there, but at the same time he wasn't, not totally. Sam reached out for his brother's arm and exhaled slowly.
"What are you seeing?"
Dean bit his lip and made a weak attempt to shrug Sam off, but the younger Winchester didn't let him. Instead, he squeezed Dean's shoulder and looked intently into his eyes. Dean frowned, and tried to look away, but Sam's words summoned his attention back.
"We're in this together? Remember?" Sam said, stressing his words pointedly, and with a note of urgency edging his tone. "Please, talk to me. I need to know what's going on. What are you seeing?"
Swallowing hard and shutting his eyes, Dean nodded so slightly that Sam would have missed it if his hand hadn't been on the crook of his brother's neck.
"Me," Dean sighed miserably. "I'm seeing me."
Sam's lips quivered, forming an unspoken "What?" But as he carefully watched his brother's eyes, he had the impression that Dean's tension passed into him almost like an electrical current and, if only for a second, he clearly heard a child's giggle and the light sound of tiny footsteps pattering around the room.
Missouri stirred the stew with a wooden spoon and wrinkled her nose appreciatively at the tasty smell emanating from the saucepan.
"I think it's ready," she announced.
Jennifer tore her attention from the salad she was tossing and gratefully accepted the spoonful of stew Missouri offered her to taste.
"It's good," the blond woman said, licking her lips.
Missouri smiled and put the burner out while Jennifer left for a second to check on her children, who were watching TV in the living room. When she came back, Missouri held out a bottle of beer for her.
"Did you tell them dinner is almost ready?"
"Yep, but I think it's going to be hard to separate them from the television now. They're all excited to know if Tarzan stays in the jungle or not."
"They're so sweet," Missouri said, chuckling. "Let them be. The movie can't last much longer."
"You're spoiling them, Missouri," Jennifer whined good-humouredly. "Oh, by the way, remember that job interview I told you about?" she asked, sipping her beer.
"Yes, the accountant's position on Vermont Street. How did it go?"
"Pretty well, actually," Jennifer replied. Then she seemed afraid of her own enthusiasm and hesitated. "Well, I don't know. It's always hard to tell."
Missouri glanced at her with affection. The younger woman seemed tired, and she should be, since raising two kids on one's own had to be extremely hard. Jennifer was doing a wonderful job with Sari and Richie, but Missouri knew that it was also important for Jennifer to have a friend to sit idly with in the kitchen and talk. Regardless of the real reason she had invited them over on that particular night, Missouri enjoyed their company very much and was always delighted to spend time with her and the children. The truth was that she had come to appreciate them all dearly, and she was scared to admit how deeply it would hurt her if something happened to them.
"Yes, but you know, you just said it went well. Have a little faith in yourself!" the older woman said firmly.
Jennifer shrugged sheepishly.
"Maybe you're right. It seems like a great opportunity, and I could really use the money."
"So I take it you haven't heard from them yet?"
"They said they would call me today, tomorrow at the latest. Honestly, I'm kind of nervous about the whole thing."
"I'm sure you'll get the job. And if you don't, it'll be their loss."
Relaxed by Missouri's words of comfort, Jennifer allowed herself to laugh. Missouri sat down with her, uncapped a beer for herself, and sipped from the bottle with a calm smile.
"Speaking of calls. Those…bug-killers, Sam and Dean. They told you they would call me, right?"
"But what did they say exactly? Did they find anything, or…?"
"Yeah, they did."
"Please tell me it wasn't rats!"
Missouri smiled broadly, but when she noticed Jennifer's utterly sickened grimace, her expression became sympathetic.
"No, don't worry. No rats. Just a problem with the wiring. Or maybe they said piping. You know old houses have these kinds of inconveniences every now and then. No big deal."
"Wow! That takes a load off my mind. They'll be able to take care of it?"
Fidgeting with her beer, the psychic fixed a pensive look on the kitchen table and chewed her lip.
"They'll do everything they can," she said softly.
Satisfied with the response, Jennifer took a swig of her beer and leaned back in her chair with a contented sigh.
"I was thinking…" Jennifer's musing voice pulled Missouri out of her thoughts, "How old do you think those guys were? I don't know. It's just that they seemed very young."
"Oh, and what were you expecting?"
"I'm not sure. Someone more like the big fat, bug-killer in his fifties type!"
Missouri arched an eyebrow.
"Hey," Jennifer elaborated. "I'm not complaining! They were kind of hot."
"Jennifer!" Missouri scolded her teasingly. A burst of laughter jeopardized any attempt to keep the fake rebuke up.
"I'm just saying!" Jennifer said, laughing too.
The two women continued to laugh heartily as they finished their drinks. Missouri was still wearing an amused smile on her face when she went into the living room to answer the telephone. Jennifer lazily watched her leave while idly thinking about a non-catastrophic, roundabout way to talk her kids into leaving the movie for later.
"Hello?" Missouri said, picking up the phone.
After a pause, all trace of her previous smile was gone.
"Hold on a second."
She glanced at Jennifer, who had followed her to the living room and was standing by the door frame, and spoke apologetically with a hand covering the receiver.
"Sorry, dear. I have to take this"
"Oh", Jennifer blinked, "Do you need us to wait for you in the kitchen?"
"No", Missouri replied, "No, make yourself comfortable here. Just, do you mind if I talk in the other room?"
Jennifer shook her head without hesitation.
"No! No, of course not. Please, go ahead," she said, waving her hand dismissively.
Missouri smiled nervously and hung up the living room's telephone before disappearing down the corridor and into her bedroom. Once there, she closed the door behind her, sat on her bed and then sighed as she picked up the small phone.
In the living room, Jennifer sat down on the couch and relaxed as she watched her children enjoy the movie. Twisting and untwisting a lock of her hair, she let her thoughts wander again to the job interview and the expected call. In doing so she suddenly felt the urge to take a look at her cell phone, just in case she had missed the call. Getting up from the couch, she reached for her bag and rummaged around with no results.
"Oh, no…" she said, frowning as she realized that she must have left the cell at home.
Jennifer chastised herself and pursed her lips as she drummed her fingers on the table. She stole a glance to the corridor and heard the murmur of Missouri talking on the phone. Then she eyed her children who were sitting peacefully in front of the TV with beatific smiles on their round faces. For a couple of seconds, Jennifer was seized by doubt. She really needed to go pick up the cell, but at the same time, she didn't want to interrupt Missouri, because judging from her friend's previous expression, the conversation she was having was really important. Making up her mind, she went to crouch next to her eldest child.
The girl looked up to her mother and tilted her head quizzically.
"Listen, I forgot my phone at home and I think I'm going to drop by the house to get it. Will you be okay on your own if I go out for a second?
"Can we keep watching the movie?"
"Sure. I just need you to keep an eye on your brother, okay? I won't take longer than fifteen minutes, and Missouri is in her bedroom. If you need anything, just call her."
"Okay, Mommy," Sari said, shrugging.
"Yes, it's fine. We're a team."
Jennifer chuckled warmly when her little girl used those words. They were the same words Jennifer had so often used since her husband had passed away to make Sari understand that even though things were a bit different, everything would be alright as long as they stayed together and helped each other.
"Thanks, baby," Jennifer said, stroking Sari's hair and affectionately tugging Richie's, which elicited a giggle from her younger son. "I'll be right back."
The children waved goodbye to her before again getting absorbed by the screen, and Jennifer tossed a last look at them before leaving Missouri's place.
"Are you going to kill Mom?"
With a half-smirk that could pass as much for disbelieving as for hysterical, Dean shook his head as a four-year old, wide-eyed form of himself stared back at him from the living room's threshold. Sam scanned the same spot Dean was looking at but was at a loss because he could see nothing in the space.
"What do you mean?" Sam asked warily.
"I mean exactly what I said, Sam. I'm watching a version of myself that's 22 years younger and…" Dean paused and chuckled heartlessly. "God, I'm so gonna need a shrink after this."
Sam didn't fall for Dean's attempt at levity, since his brother's wavering voice told him better. Grinding his teeth with angered resolution, the younger hunter reached out for Dean's gun, but his brother ducked him.
"I'll do it," Sam hissed. "Tell me where it is."
"You can't shoot him. He's not really there."
"It's in my head, okay? I know it's only in my head."
"You…" Sam frowned and scanned Dean's expression, trying to make sense of his words. "You're still with me right?"
"Is this a game?"
Swearing under his breath, Dean detached himself from Sam and took a sharp intake of air. A buzzing pulsation started to pound inside his head, and his heart was racing uncomfortably in his chest. Only a great amount of self-control kept him from jerking away from little Dean's voice which was full of tender innocence. He had had enough of mind games already, so why did he still allow them to get to him like this? He had known Mary's ghost would try something, and he had been prepared…right?
"Dean!" Sam insisted.
"Please, don't kill Mom."
Dean took a deep breath and swallowed.
"I'm here, Sam," Dean said, in an attempt to assure his little brother.
"But are you okay?" Sam asked, aware that he was honestly starting to freak out. "Is he hurting you?"
"No, I'm fine, really. Let's just get this over with."
"Dean, no," Sam begged. "Please, just give me the gun and go wait in the car."
"We've already gone through this."
"Dude, you're hallucinating!"
"I'm not! And stop acting like I'm going crazy!" Dean said, glaring.
"Stop it, Sam!" Dean yelled. "I can deal with mini-me here puppy-dog eying me, but I can't deal with you doing it too. So just stop it already."
Dean huffed as he saw Sam's jaw clench, and he recognized the new expression on his brother's face as it subtly switched from worried puppy to beaten puppy. No matter how many years passed, Dean would never be able to see that look without feeling a clenching sensation in his stomach. This was exactly what Dean meant. Right now he needed Sam to back him up, not to weigh him down. Sam's support always meant the world to him, but his pity could knock Dean out faster than any supernatural thing he had ever hunted. Why didn't Sam get that?
"Sam, really I'm fine. And you can't use the 'together' card only when it's convenient for you. You're going to have to let me do this," Dean said, trying to sound sensible and calm. He only partly managed to do so, but it was enough for Sam to acknowledge that remaining calm was Dean's goal. Unfortunately, though, Dean didn't seem to be able to mask the plea that lay underneath his assurances. "C'mon. Let's just get this over with."
Reluctant to give in, Sam shrugged in an attempt to stall for enough time to think the situation through. He knew Dean was right, but that didn't make Sam less worried. Why didn't Dean get it? In Sam's book, having Dean in a haunted house under the reckless attack of outer and inner ghosts that would certainly crush Sam if their positions were changed gave him every right to be concerned about his big brother. Sam was just expressing support, and regardless of what Dean might think, it had nothing to do with pity.
"This is so not right," Sam finally mumbled.
"We knew something like this could happen," Dean reminded him. "I know it's just a trick, and I'm not going to let it get to me, alright?
Sam gave an unconvinced half nod, and Dean guessed that it was the best he was going to get from his little brother.
"C'mon," Dean said, and patted Sam's shoulder.
The younger Winchester stiffened a bit and headed for the stairs after stealing a last suspicious glance at the space Dean's hallucination should be standing. Dean released the air he had been holding in his lungs and determinedly followed his brother, but he still cringed when little Dean reappeared on the second floor landing with tears pooling in his eyes.
"Please I don't want to be alone anymore…"
The child's voice shattered Dean's heart and even though he refused to pay attention to the wave of emotions building inside his chest, the little kid's loneliness and dejection punched him in the gut. Hard. He didn't remember his own voice ever sounding so broken, so pitiful and lost. Now, hearing it inside his head sounded too much as if it was his own self talking, instead of the hallucination.
Dean needed so badly to believe that it was the hallucination talking, instead of him.
"Just…" Dean said to Sam, forcing his voice to sound casual. "Stay where I can see you, will you?"
Sam met Dean's eyes, and the line of his jaw softened.
"Sure," the younger hunter replied, in a similar unfussy tone.
Dean nodded uncompromisingly, and Sam took it for what it was, Dean saying thanks.
Maybe they did get each other, after all.
"Is it still here?" Sam asked.
Dean just nodded and busied himself arranging the packets of herbs that they had placed along the eastern wall of Jennifer's room. In the small library across the corridor and also in Richie's room, they had just performed the ritual which would allegedly keep their mother's ghost from hiding in the northern and western walls of the house. As minutes passed by, the older hunter's communication skills had been reduced to short, dry sentences and severe gestures that had Sam concerned. But Dean couldn't bother to give more detailed answers right now. The fact remained that he needed to keep it together, and to do that, he needed to be able to count on his sanity. As much as he hated it, he realized he couldn't block the kid's spell, and if he kept trying, it would break him completely. He needed to focus, keep the connection, and trust he would still be in control afterwards.
Sam knew better than to take his brother's restraint the wrong way, because he was able to notice in Dean's stance every single sign of distress he had learned to pick up from his brother over the years. Despite Dean's efforts to affect a cavalier attitude, his brow was constantly furrowed with troubled lines of pain. The color in his face was draining by the minute, and since they had left the library, Sam could tell that Dean was nursing a splitting headache based on the way in which he was pressing the pitch of his nose. As promised, Sam refrained from hauling Dean outside by force but made sure he remained within Dean's sight. This way, whenever his older brother, who was floating halfway between delusion and reality, raised his hazed eyes, Sam could be there to provide him with an anchor to the world.
"Holy water," Dean grunted, holding out his hand.
Sam silently passed him the vase and tossed around a look for the umpteenth time. He kept the EMF detector in his hand, but it seemed quite useless since it was no longer able to distinguish the readings of paranormal activity in the rooms. On the contrary, the electromagnetic field was peaking all over the place, which only made Sam nervous. He switched it off as Dean poured the holy water over the juniper and houseleek stalks and mumbled a purifying prayer.
"Daddy is going to be mad at you."
"Leave me alone," Dean said the words in his head, as he glowered at his child image. "You're not even here."
"You're the one talking to me!" the kid protested.
"Hey, I'm just being a nice guy."
"Then why are you doing this?"
"It's my job."
"And she's Mom! You can't kill her!"
Dean closed his eyes momentarily and pressed his lips tightly together. Beside him, Sam took the lead and continued reciting the Latin words.
"She's already dead."
Little Dean's chin trembled, and he wore a horrified expression.
"Mommy isn't dead."
The boy hunched his body miserably in the corner and started to cry. Dean tried his best to ignore the sounds of the child's distress and stood up next to Sam to join him in the incantation he was reading. But while he was able to keep from looking directly at the hallucination, the childish sobs got to him anyway, so much so that that his own chest started to tighten and loosen spasmodically at its rhythm.
"You're bad. You want to hurt her."
Dean vaguely overheard Sam reciting louder, faster, trying to rush the ritual, but his voice was slipping away. The oppression in Dean's chest increased a notch and he shivered involuntary at the far-off quality of his brother's voice. How could Sam possibly sound so far away when he was standing right behind him?
He started to turn around, but all of a sudden a wave of dizziness halted the movement. He wet his lips instead and struggled to focus his consciousness on the reality around him. He felt that if he let his guard down he would drift away, was, in fact, doing just that, drifting nicely and slowly towards the void….
Sam didn't answer. Dean knew he wouldn't until he finished the prayer, because interrupting it would mean having to start it all over again. But he felt a firm, supporting hand on his shoulder in exchange.
"I don't want to hurt her."
Dean let out a strangled gasp and pressed his hands against his ears to block out a cry that didn't belong to him, but that was shaking him all the same.
"Please, don't cry."
"Liar, liar, liar!" little Dean yelled, still weeping. "She's not dead. I can feel her!"
Dean glared at his younger image curled up in the corner. With every sob that racked the four-year old's body, a gust of fear, helplessness and pain came out of him and was breathed in by the older hunter until he couldn't stand it anymore.
"Maybe you're already dead too," Dean shot back.
The kid stared at him wide-eyed and whimpered piteously.
"Maybe you died in the fire."
"That's why you stayed in the house."
Little Dean blinked, and Dean clearly saw that his thin eyelashes were bright and heavy with tears.
"But I'm not in the house," the kid sniveled soundly, and fixed a serious look on Dean.
The boy crawled to his knees and then stood up with an innocent expression plastered on his round face.
"You tried to leave me behind." he stated coldly with his small voice. He then raised a little hand to place it on Dean's heart. "But I've been with you all the time."
Dean's body jerked backwards suddenly to avoid the contact, and his knees failed. He sensed Sam bustling to support his weight, but the younger brother couldn't keep both of them standing without Dean's collaboration, so he hooked his arm firmly around Dean's and eased him down to the floor.
"I'm not like you!"
"I am you."
"That's not true!"
"Why do you think that?"
"Because you're weak! You're weak," Dean weakly shouted the words out loud.
The kid pinned Dean with an accusatory look and little by little his pout turned gloomy.
"Is that why you hate me so much?"
Sam was shaking him now, but Dean was unable to take his eyes away from the image of his four-year old self. All of a sudden, red-orange flames came out the walls and surrounded him. When the flames reached the child, his young skin darkened and crumpled like burned paper to leave his flesh exposed to the blazing rage of the fire. His hair volatilized in rivulets of nauseating smoke that crept along the walls and up to the ceiling.
The boy's eyes welled with panic before rolling to the back of his head. Then, just before he could voice the slightest cry of pain, the flames voraciously engulfed him. Dean became entranced by the ghastly image, and he felt the heat and the pull of the fire as his eyes glazed over.
"I'm sorry, Dad."
"For being alive..."
Dean made a step towards the fire, but someone grabbed his chin and forced him to turn his head. Averting his eyes from the flames, Dean found himself looking into Sam's face.
Take your brother outside as fast as you can…
Dean's muscles tensed, as soon as the house, the fire and Sam came together in a single thought. But the Sam looking back at him wasn't a baby anymore. Moreover, Dean wasn't holding him in his arms, because Sam was crouching in front of him and grabbing his shoulders urgently in an effort to coax him out of his daze.
"It's Sam," Sam corrected him. "But basically, yeah."
"The house…it's on fire. I have to…"
"There's no fire, bro."
"But I have to take you outside!"
"Look around you, Dean. There's no fire."
Dean blinked in confusion and glanced towards the corner where the vision of his younger self had last been standing before he returned his gaze to his brother.
"You're not hurt?" Dean asked, examining Sam carefully, as if he still expected to see burns on his brother's skin.
"I…No, I just saw the fire."
"I know. But it wasn't real," Sam said, calmly.
Dean chuckled nervously and looked away, but he still appeared shaky to Sam. Giving his brother a moment to regain his lost equilibrium, Sam remained silent, and didn't move until Dean met his eyes again.
"It wasn't real, Dean," Sam repeated.
"Yeah, I know," Dean agreed, visibly uncomfortable.
"Good," Sam said, patting his brother's arm and starting to rise. "Can you stand up?"
Dean hesitated but eventually accepted the hand Sam offered him and let his little brother haul him to his feet.
"I didn't know you remembered the fire," the younger hunter said.
"So what?" Dean asked, shrugging defensively.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"You're not in any position to ask that, shining boy," Dean replied, after clearing his throat. Once he thought that he could trust his legs, he brushed Sam's hand away.
"Did you..." Sam paused and breathed in, "Did you see it? Did you see Mom, when…?
"No," Dean said, brusquely cutting off his brother.
Sam looked down and nodded.
"I didn't know that you were the one who took me outside either," Sam added softly.
Sam shook his head no and affectionately looked up at Dean, who just rolled his eyes in annoyance.
"It's not a big deal," Dean snapped, trying to put an end to the staring. "Did you finish the ritual?"
Sam nodded, accepting the change of subject.
"Only one to go," he confirmed encouragingly.
Dean snorted bitterly. Sure, only one to go and then all they'd have to do was find Mommy and shoot her. Sam's expression sank, and he looked away sheepishly. Obviously the same thought had just crossed his little brother's mind, and he realized how stupid his previous reassuring words sounded. But at least he was trying, Dean said to himself.
"It's okay," the younger hunter said, shrugging. "Let's go."
Sam headed to the door, but Dean held back, hesitating.
"I- I think I just killed mini-me here."
Sam was going to reply, but his voice fell quiet when they heard the sound of the front door opening downstairs.
Alone in the privacy of her bedroom, Missouri hung up the phone and twisted her hands so hard that the gold rings she was wearing left marks on her fingers. She released a deep sigh and closed her eyes as John's voice still rang in her ears. She was a powerful empath, and she was vulnerable to intense emotions if she didn't manage to block them. But blocking them was always harder with people she cared about, and it was made even harder when strong emotions were involved.
She couldn't think of a person she'd come to care more about through the years than John Winchester. And despite what people might think, probably despite himself, she'd known nobody who felt as strongly as he did. Missouri had never been able to shield herself from her best friend, and wouldn't want to even if she learned how. Not even if it meant being exposed to the most terrible of John's traits: his anger.
She took only a minute to collect herself and stop trembling before heading back to the living room. Sari and Richie were still sitting on the floor, but they were playing now. Apparently, the movie had just finished, since the credits were still rolling down the screen. Missouri smiled at the children's cheerful giggles and let their voices wash away the reminiscences of John's pain as her eyes scanned the room for Jennifer.
"Sari, honey? Where's your Mom?"
The girl laughed when Richie threw a cushion over her head and didn't answer until she made sure her little brother had been dealt the due payback.
"She forgot her cell and went home to pick it up," she replied worriless, dodging Richie's counter-attack.
Missouri felt literally drained of blood.
"Oh, my God," she breathed.
"But she said she'd be right back," the girl added, noticing Missouri's change of expression, "And she said we could watch the end of the movie…"
Missouri bit her tongue. She was scaring the kids.
"It's alright, honey," she mumbled clumsily.
But it wasn't. Nothing was alright, and truthfully she was the one who was scared.
"You don't know what you've done!" John's words came back to her darkly. "She can't be killed! Shooting her won't be enough!"
When the door to her house opened without her having to use her key, Jennifer was surprised. She was sure that she had locked it. The woman made a step back and eyed the façade while chewing her lip. The house appeared calm, and so did the neighboring homes.
"How strange," she said to herself.
Since nothing else seemed off, she put her concerns to the back of her mind and entered the house. But she remained wary enough to unconsciously prick her ears and reach for the light switch as soon as she closed the door. A cold gust of air made her shiver, and her hair stood on end.
"This is silly," Jennifer thought, rubbing her arms to shake off the chilly sensation.
She glanced at the hall, and spotted her cell phone on the cabinet along the wall opposite to the stairs. Muttering in self-reproach, Jennifer walked to the cabinet and clasped the cell-phone in her hand. She was about to make a beeline out when a tingling sensation froze her midway.
"Jennifer…" a voice whispered.
Jennifer jumped and turned around with her heart pounding hard in her chest. Looking frantically right and then left, her eyes finally settled on the kitchen door. It was ajar, and for a second, she thought she saw a flicking light behind it. Jennifer gasped and clutched the phone even tighter.
"This is really silly," she mentally chastised herself once more.
She had spent too much time paying attention to Sari's nightmares. One of these days, Jennifer was going to have to have a serious talk with that young girl….
Jennifer shuddered and her jaw clenched tensely. The light had flickered again, if only for a split second. The woman narrowed her eyes and raised the phone, her thumb hovering over the nine and one keys.
"Who is it?" Jennifer called out. "Is anybody there?"
"Jennifer!" Dean hissed.
Sam's breath became laboured, and his eyes frantically darted from Dean to the door.
"I t-thought that Missouri had taken care of her," the younger hunter grumbled between gasps for breath.
"That's what I thought too, Sam!" Dean said, glaring at him.
"Shhhh," Dean commanded. He grabbed Sam's arm and pushed him towards the wall, seizing the adequacy of any corner as a potential hideout. "She still may go out again…"
"Dean…" Sam's voice came out strangled.
"What?" Dean huffed impatiently.
Dean frowned and looked into Sam's dilated pupils, finding them full of perplexity. Under the hand he still kept on Sam's arm, Dean felt his little brother going rigid.
"I, huh…I think…Dean, I can feel her now."
Sam tilted his head back against the wall and his Adam's apple wobbled inside his throat. Dean made a face of astonishment, but his heart raced and his hand reflexively clasped Sam's arm tighter.
"What do you mean?"
"Mom…Mom is here."
This wasn't right. Sam wasn't supposed to feel Mary's presence. Sam was supposed to be left out of that!
Sam's a psychic, Dean reminded himself.
Something about those words caused a wave of unease to rise in Dean, but he would be damned if he ever let Sam realize his apprehension about his abilities. Besides, psychic or not, Sam hadn't perceived a thing until now.
"She's going to attack," Dean muttered, almost to himself.
At that moment, Jennifer's voice pierced the silence with a high-pitched shriek. Sam and Dean jumped in unison.
"No…No!" Sam breathed, throwing himself towards the door.
Dean stopped him and pinned him against the wall again.
"Finish the ritual," Dean grunted, patting his brother hard on the chest.
Sam noticed Dean held the remaining herb sachets in his hand and was pressing them against him, so he raised his own hand to take them.
"Finish the ritual, Sam," Dean insisted, his hand brushing his brother's as Sam grabbed the herbs. "I'll get Jennifer."
Dean picked up the rock salt gun they had left on the floor and rushed to the door.
"Your room, Sammy! That's the last one."
"GO, SAM, GO!"
Sam fisted the sachets.
And rushed to the room where it all had started.