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Fic: Looking Through Windows 2/3

Being a parent was harder than he expected from watching John Winchester. Of course, Sam was usually happy to point out that John left most of the day-to-day stuff to Dean when they were growing up. His brother had somehow made it seem effortless, which some dim corner of his mind was marveling at through layers of exhaustion. There were two of them to watch over Peter, and he was still young enough that he slept at least half of the day, but somehow he and Jess ended up dropping into bed bone-tired every single night. Of course, Sam was also working his tail off at the new law firm, trying to prove himself through research as he worked his way up the ladder and Jess had just started a job with the school system that evaluated the way children were taught to learn.

With the way things were going with their love life, Peter was pretty much doomed to be an only child. Especially since they might have to scrape together their money and find some sort of caretaker during the day. It would have been easier if Jess hadn’t fallen in love with Colorado. They’d moved far enough away from her family that there would be no easy way for his in-laws to drop in and watch Peter. Jess had no plans to abandon her career before it had even started to stay home with their son, no matter how much she loved him, and Sam needed the law firm to keep him sane. Sam thrived on the challenge of the cases and the research that each one required, but he also craved the time spent with his wife and son.

It was hard not to adore Peter. Even as an infant, he was good-natured and quiet, rarely kicking up a fuss unless he was sick. His eyes stayed blue, to match Jessica’s eyes, and he had a way of studying whoever was around him.

Jessica glowed with pride in every one of Peter’s accomplishments, declaring him to be the smartest baby in the world. One of Sam’s greatest pleasures was watching Jessica play with Peter in the mornings. They shared both play and work and chores with Peter, but Jess was a morning person and she had pretty much claimed the early hours with their son as her own. Sam spent the late afternoon walking the floor with Peter while Jess caught a nap, and then they spent the rest of the night together.

It worked, to some degree. Sam sometimes missed the early days of their marriage, when they’d moved to Colorado and it had been just the two of them in a new, strange city, but he wouldn’t trade Peter for anything.

xxx

Sam was still sitting in front of the computer when his brother and his nephew came jostling back into the apartment. Dean might have had a point about the necessity of physical activity; he seemed much more awake and alive than Sam felt right now. “Dibs on the shower,” Dean called as they walked through the living room. “Age before beauty, dude. Go over and be smelly around your Uncle Sam.”

Ben did as his father directed, grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge and plopping down next to Sam. “Did you find anything while we were gone?”

“Nothing new,” Sam muttered. His eyes felt like they were filled with sand and his mouth tasted like rancid coffee. “Where did you two go?”

“The park down the road,” Ben said, shrugging. “We made a couple of loops and then headed back.”

“Where did you park the car when you got there?” Sam had never been able to find a good parking place, though he’d never headed out this early in the morning.

Ben gave him a skeptical look. “It’s just a mile. We ran there.”

Sam wasn’t quite sure why that surprised him. He remembered two hours minimum of PT when they were teenagers, every day after school, but that had fallen by the way when he left for Stanford. He still stayed in shape, but running five miles in a morning seemed excessive. “So, you play in any sports in school?”

Ben made a derogatory sound that could have been recorded in the late 90’s from Dean Winchester. “I run cross country and track. Football’s for jerks and assholes and baseball’s for little whiny bitches.”

“Watch the language, kiddo,” Dean said from the other room. “Your mother hears you talk like that and its me she’ll come after. My clothes in there?’

“Yeah, dad,” the teenager said, making no move to get up and carry it in to the other room.

“Great,” Dean said, coming in to the common area. He was wearing a pair of dress slacks, a dress shirt in one hand. “This one has blood stains on it,” he explained, rooting around in the bag for a clean one. In the bright morning light the scars on his torso stood out like neon, some of them old and familiar and some of them new to Sam. There was a tattoo over his heart, a pentacle inside of a sun that Sam had never seen.

“You’re supposed to let mom know about those, not just toss them into the laundry,” Ben told him, standing up and stripping off his own sweat-stained T-shirt, revealing an identical tattoo on his own skinny chest. “Shower’s free?”

“Yeah, go ahead,” Dean said absently, oblivious to Sam’s stare.

Sam waited until the water was running before he turned to his brother. “What’s up with the matching tramp stamps?”

“Lisa’s is a tramp stamp,” Dena corrected, still digging around for a clean shirt. “She figured it would look less obvious if it was in a normal location. I swear I packed more than one dress shirt.”

“Dean!” Sam waited until he had his brother’s full and undivided attention. “What’s with the tattoos? I don’t recognize the symbol.”

“Prevents demonic possession,” Dean said, looking up at last, a clean if slightly wrinkled shirt in his hand. “Bobby found it a while back.”

“Demons?” Sam had never actually seen a demon back when he lived in the hunting world, but he’d thought they were rare. Having your teenage son tattooed seemed a little like overkill.

“They had a major uptick about ten years ago. I ended up on a few demonic most-wanted lists and it just made sense to make it harder for them to get to me or the family.”

Sam nodded, absorbing this. It didn’t surprise him that Dean had managed to piss off demons. Dean could piss off anyone when he wanted to. “And the suit?”

“We’re not going to find everything we need on the Internet,” Dean said. He started buttoning up the white shirt, not bothering to iron it. “A suit and badge opens up doors.”

“You can’t go around pretending to be a cop around here,” Sam protested. “I live here. Someone will put the two of us together.”

Dean rolled his eyes and returned to his bag, rummaging for a second before pulling something out and tossing it onto the table. “Get your panties out their bunch, Sam. I’m a licensed private investigator. I’ll just claim to be looking into the disappearance of some of those kids we turned up.”

Sam picked up the ID wallet and studied it carefully. “This is a really good fake,” he finally said.

“It’s real,” Dean told him shortly, looping a tie around his neck. “I’m licensed in almost every state now. Can’t drag identity fraud home.”

“That’s a good idea,” Sam admitted. “Way less likely to get you in trouble like the FBI badges.”

“Yeah, well it’s got its downsides. When you’ve got an FBI badge you can pretty much get any information you want. With this, it’s all about the charm and the story I spin. Have to work twice as hard to get the information sometimes, but Lisa will kill me if she has to bail me out for impersonating an officer of the law.”

Sam nodded, standing up and cracking his neck. His head felt like it weighed about forty pounds and he hoped Ben didn’t take too long in the shower. He had no idea how Dean was still going strong. The only thing keeping him awake and aware was his worry for Peter. “So where are we going and what do we need?”

Dean slipped on a suit coat. He’d shaved the graying two-day beard and looked oddly professional. “Ben’s going in to the police station. He’s going to be looking for a spike in statistics on runaways, supposedly for a school project, since there weren’t any unsolved kidnappings in the area. I’m going to be looking at county records, combing through deaths. This is turning out to be a bitch to narrow down, and I could use an extra pair of eyes if you want to join me. We’ll stop and get something to eat on the way so Ben doesn’t start gnawing on the upholstery.”

xxx

It was like a puzzle piece fitting into place, except that was the kind of geeky analogy that Dean had no intention of using. An engine being tuned up and brought into alignment, then, or a gun getting stripped apart, cleaned and reassembled properly after being mishandled. Dean Winchester was now Ben’s dad and Lisa’s guy, and for the first time in a long time he felt like he belonged. He was home.

That didn’t mean that everything went smoothly. His childhood didn’t make the kind of happy blueprint that you could follow in any normal situation. He slipped up half a dozen times in the first year, leaving guns lying around where Ben could get to them (the panic of that one meant it only happened once, and he made sure to train the both of them in how to use a gun and to keep the majority of them locked away in the trunk after that), drinking too much, or being a little too colorful around Ben than made Lisa comfortable. When you consider how much he traveled that year, it wasn’t a good track record.

When he heard about Sam’s son being born he went to see his brother. He almost took Ben and Lisa with him, but it was the middle of the school year and Lisa put her foot down. Her decision made things a little easier in one respect. Lisa would have expected them to actually go in and talk with Sam and Jessica, maybe hold the kid or spend the night, and Dean had no intention of doing any of those things.

Sam didn’t want him there. He knew that one like he knew how to breathe air. His brother hadn’t called to tell him what had happened, even though Dean knew he had the number. He’d found out about the newest family member because he had a news search set up for his brother’s name and the birth announcement had shown up in his inbox, sandwiched between case dockets where Sam had been involved. But Dean had to see his new nephew with his own eyes. He needed to know that his brother was happy and that Sam and Jessica were doing well, that they were both healthy and that they were safe.

Sam and his wife had already brought the baby home from the hospital by the time Dean got to Colorado, which made things easier. By now he’d had enough practice in his life at looking vaguely respectable while loitering and casing out places that he managed to blend in with the neighbors. The older lady on the first floor was happy to share the gossip about the young couple on the fourteenth and their new baby to the guy who had just moved into the building.

It took two days of this before he got a glimpse of the three of them. Jessica was pushing the stroller and Sam was following close behind with an unbelievable number of bags. They were too far away for Dean to get more than a vague impression of the baby hidden away inside, and he didn’t want to risk things by getting closer, but he could tell from the lack of rushing and the generally upbeat but tired body language that all was well.

It wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot, but it would have to do.

xxx

Sam hadn’t seen his brother in more than a decade, unless you counted the three minutes or so of stumbling and slurring that Dean had put in at Jess’ funeral. He’d been understandably too distracted then to really notice anything beyond the drunken swaying, but now he was sitting here with nothing better to do than study his brother and his apparent nephew. Dean navigated the streets of Sam’s small suburb like he’d lived there for years, heading toward the street where the police station, the hospital, and county records all resided.

He wasn’t quite sure what to expect when it came to his brother, although probably somewhere deep in his subconscious he was dreading a clone of John Winchester. Some part of him was also awaiting the lean, sharp twenty-two year old that had shoved an envelope of cash into his hands before Sam got onto the bus that would take him to Stanford and Jess and everything that was his life. Neither option was quite what he was delivered, thankfully, although the appearance of the teenage son at his side was a little suspect at best. When he’d arrived Dean had a day or two of stubble with a surprising amount of grey in it and a sprinkling of silver in his hair and at his temples, but he was missing the cold-eyed stare that still stood out to him as John Winchester’s stock in trade.

Ben said something that made Dean laugh quietly, making the lines crinkle up around his eyes and mouth and the scar that snaked across one temple and along his jawline disappear for a moment. “I’m pretty sure your mom would kill me, dude. Next year, maybe, I’ll buy you a beer, as long as you don’t tell her about it.”

“Come on, it’ll be our secret,” Ben said, a note of mischief in his voice that was a flashback to Sam’s childhood. It was unbelievable how much the kid acted like Dean sometimes.

“Not a chance,” Dean said, pulling the car into the hospital parking lot. “I like sex and not sleeping on the couch.”

“TMI!”

“I’m sure you’ll recover. You know what you’re going for?”

“Information on the statistics of runaways for a research paper,” Ben said promptly. “I’m looking for any increase in pre-teens over the last twenty years.”

“And if you don’t find it?”

“Go back further.”

“Good boy.” Ben got out of the car and straightened the button-up shirt that Dean had practically forced him to wear, reaching back into the vehicle for the messenger bag that contained a battered laptop and a couple of notebooks and texts that would make his claim a little more believable. He walked into the police station across the street from the small hospital, utilizing that same confident strut that Sam recognized from his brother.

“God, it’s like you cloned yourself,” Sam said with a little disgust. That particular brand of self-assurance had been both the envy and the bane of Sam’s teenage existence.

Dean watched the teenager go with an odd expression on his face. “He’s not really my son, Sam. Not by blood, anyway.”

Sam turned to his brother in shock. “You told me he was!”

“There was a chance,” Dean conceded. “His mom and I go way back. But she said she had him tested back when he was born so that his asshole father would pay child support. But he’s been mine for ten years now, since I moved in with his mom. I just wanted you to stop looking for me in him. Anything that’s awesome about Ben came from Lisa.”

“And she lets you take her son on hunts?”

“This is the first one he’s ever been on. I taught him how to defend himself, but I wasn’t going to let him go on a hunt until after he’d graduated high school. I kind of hoped I could talk him out of the idea by then.”

“So what happened?”

“You needed help,” Dean said simply. “Lisa thought this would be a good chance for Ben to meet his uncle and his cousin.”

“But I’m not his uncle,” Sam protested.

“I might not be Ben’s father, but I’m his Dad.” His brother rubbed at his forehead, a new mannerism that Sam was learning to interpret as an incipient headache. “You and Peter and Bobby are all his family just as much as Lisa’s sister and mother.” He opened the car door with a creak and stepped out of the Impala. “You coming in, or do you want to wait here?”

“No, I’m coming.” Sam got out of the car, tucking the revelation away where he could reflect on it later, once Peter was safe. When he first called Dean, he’d had no inkling that he could make up with his brother again, or that he would even want to. Trust Dean to make him rethink that plan.

xxx

Everything hurt. That was the first thought that swam up from the bottom of his subconscious. Even his eyes ached in their sockets as too-bright light pummeled them harshly. Sam knew that there was something important that he should be trying to remember, but it was hard to come up against the pain and find it.

“Mr. Winchester? Sam, can you hear me?”

He didn’t know the voice that was trying to stab through his skull. Why was a stranger talking to him right now? Couldn’t whoever it was let him sleep?

“Mr. Winchester?” A gloved hand pried open one eyelid and aimed the beam of a penlight at his pupil. “Are you with us now, Mr. Winchester?”

“Think so,” Sam admitted. There was no way they were going to let him get any sleep now.

The doctor that the penlight belonged to gave a quick, professional concussion check, asking all the questions that Sam dimly remembered administering to his father and brother when they came back from a hunt injured. When she was finished, she sat down on the seat next to him, her expression solemn and grave. Sam had a feeling he didn’t like what she was about to say.

“There was an accident,” she began, and Sam’s mind immediately jumped to Peter, and then to Jess, wondering where they were.

“Peter?” he asked.

“That would be your son?” Sam nodded, and she hurried to reassure him. “Your son is fine. He wasn’t in the car at the time of the accident.”

Sam felt a rush of relief that disappeared almost as quickly as it had arrived, because the doctor was looking sympathetic. “Jess?”

“I’m sorry to say that your wife didn’t make it,” she said, her voice calm and just as sympathetic as her expression. “There will be an official autopsy, of course, but right now it looks as if she died instantly on impact.”

Sam didn’t hear beyond the first sentence the woman had uttered, because Jessica was dead. His wife was dead, and Peter would never truly remember his mother, and his family really was cursed.

xxx

It must be the beard, Sam decided. It just made no sense to him how easily the woman behind the desk gave in to his brother’s request for records he had no right to see. The lean matron behind the desk was old enough to be their mother, so it couldn’t be the flirting, and the identification card that listed him as a private detective might be real but it wasn’t enough to compel the records he was being given. The beard must give him some sort of aura of trustworthiness that he otherwise lacked, much like it had for their father.

“Thanks for the help, Vicky,” Dean practically purred, smiling down at her, and the older woman instantly melted in her ergonomic chair.

“It was no problem, honey. I just hope those records help you find some closure for those poor families.” She smiled benevolently at Dean with her hands primly folded on the desk.

“Oh, I’m sure it will,” he said, reaching out to take her hand. “Really, thank you so much. I couldn’t have done it without you.” He squeezed her hand once before he turned and left, Sam trailing along in his wake.

“Unbelievable,” Sam muttered once they were out of earshot. “I can’t believe you just did that.”

Dean shrugged, not quite containing his smile. “Some people just have what it takes.”

“You just lied to that poor woman,” Sam hissed out. “She could get fired for what she gave you.”

“I didn’t lie, Sam. Not technically.”

“You said the family of a missing child hired you.”

There was another shrug. “Okay, so you’re paying me crap for it. I still consider it a hire. Besides, it got me information on the area that might help me find your son, so why are you complaining?”

That was a very good point. Sam wasn’t sure why it bothered him that his brother had just waltzed in and spent forty-five minutes buttering up a file clerk to get information that they needed to find his son. He had a half-smothered guilty feeling that it was simple jealousy. He shook his head to clear it. “Nothing. It doesn’t matter. Do you think the kid is done?”

“We’ll meet up at the car. After coffee,” his brother added, walking into the tiny place on the main street that resisted all attempts to disappear into the gaping maw of the Starbucks down the street. Sam shook his head again, this time in bemusement at his brother, and followed him.

xxx

Bobby was the one who told him about Jessica, calling Dean while he was waiting in the emergency room for someone to take a look and make sure he hadn’t actually fractured his skull. One of his dad’s hard and fast rules had been not to fuck around when it came to head injuries, and it while Dean was starting to realize that he had all kinds of issues with the man, the things John Winchester had taught when it came to hunting still held true.

The doctor wouldn’t let him drive with the severe concussion (and not a fractured skull, thankfully) no matter what his reasons, going so far as to confiscate his keys like Dean was drunk and in need of a designated driver, and he asked Bobby to swing over into Wyoming on the way from South Dakota and pick him up. He called Lisa to let her know what was going on. She’d never met Sam, and she’d only once questioned his decision to stay away from his brother, but now she was determined to go to the funeral and to bring Ben along. She promised to meet them there and then hung up.

Dean spent the time waiting for Bobby alternately trying to ignore the pain and disorientation from the concussion and worrying about Sam. He had an inkling of what his brother was going through right now, thinking about what he would do if he lost Lisa and Ben. The only ray of light in the whole matter was that Pete had been at home with a babysitter. His nephew was safe and unharmed, and he knew that would be a comfort, would probably be the thing that ended up holding Sam together.

He lost some time somewhere in there, because one moment he was sitting down at the hospital and the next he was riding shotgun in his own car, Bobby behind the wheel and country music playing on the radio. Bobby glanced over at him with the same gruff concern that Dean remembered from when he was twelve and his father had dragged him back from his first hunt with what was also his first concussion.

“You sure you should be doing this?” the older man asked. “You’re pretty banged up.”

“He’s my brother,” Dean pointed out, making a valiant effort not to slur his words. This particular concussion was a bitch and he was damned lucky he was conscious at all. “I need to be there.”

He slept for most of the drive. Bobby woke him every two hours and made him answer the questions, but otherwise left him alone. This wasn’t the first time he’d nursed a Winchester through a head injury, and it probably wouldn’t be the last.

Bobby woke him up with a curt, “We’re here,” and a nudge applied with his foot so that he stayed out of range if Dean took it badly. He’d mostly toned down his reactions out of fear that Lisa or Ben would be caught by them at home, but sometimes when he was injured reflex took over and Bobby knew that.

“Awesome,” he mumbled, sitting up and trying valiantly to smooth his rumpled suit. He’d had the sense to dress at the hospital, though he didn’t really remember it now. Bobby was similarly dressed and similarly rumpled, though he’d gone the extra measure of removing his ball cap. It made Bobby look surprisingly old, his thinning hair mostly grey, and Dean was struck with the desire to ask him to put the hat back on. Sam would understand. “Lisa and Ben here yet?”

“I don’t see ‘em. She was going to fly out, but you know how airports are nowadays.”

Right. Dean vaguely remembered that. He just really wanted them here, suddenly. He and Lisa weren’t the marrying kind, either one of them, but he knew he would stay with them forever if she’d let him. All he could think about was how Sammy didn’t have someone like that anymore, someone who shared his bed and the sink in the bathroom and who would sometimes buy his favorite coffee for him for no particular reason. “Think I should wait for them?”

Bobby sighed. “I think if you’re going to head in there, you better do it now so your brother has a chance to recover. Does he know you’re coming?”

Dean shook his head, wincing against the explosions that left behind. “I couldn’t get through to talk to him.”

“We better get in there now, then. You can introduce them all later.”

xxx

Dad was right. Digging through haystacks of papers looking for a needle that might not even be in the pile and that looked exactly like every other needle in the pile kind of sucked. Ben had a feeling that he was never going to stop sneezing. It was a good thing he didn’t have asthma or allergies.

At least the local cops had completely bought his story about doing a research project on runaways and had willingly shared the statistics he needed. They had even allowed him into the archives of old cold cases, though he was completely supervised the entire time. It was more than they had hoped for.

Of course, that stroke of luck had been what brought him to dusty, moldy paper hell, but he was uncovering quite a bit of information that would probably be useful in the search for Petey. Ben was chalking this one up as a win.

He had filled up five typed pages of notes on his laptop before he received a text message from his father asking if he was finished yet.

Ben hadn’t technically found what he was trying to find. There were no spikes in the number of runaways from the immediate area, though the overall number was unusually high for the size of the town. That in itself meant something, probably that whatever spirit was doing this was relatively old and settled. He sent back a message telling dad he was on his way and packed up under the watchful eye of the supervising officer.

He was diverted from his original destination by a second text message, simply saying, ‘coffee.’ Ben knew Dean well enough by now to know that he needed to walk past the Starbucks and into the tiny coffee shop half a block over. He’d known his dad to go really far out of his way to avoid Starbucks, since Dean thought their coffee tasted like overly sweet crap and that their stores were way too girly and rubber-stamp ‘trendy.’

The barista behind the counter was a couple of years older than him and way hot, so he took a moment to flirt while Dean and Sam waited near the door. Sam looked annoyed by the delay, but Dean mostly looked quietly amused. “Got your girly coffee?” he asked.

Ben nodded, throwing his father a quick grin. He’d tried drinking it the way Dean did, strong and black, but he couldn’t stand the taste of it that way and preferred the teeth-rotting, almost candy versions. “Coffee and a phone number,” he said. He wouldn’t have time to act on the phone number, but it was nice to have.

“All right, come on Casanova. We’ve got to get back and start digging through that research.” Dean tugged at his collar a little, loosening the tie. Ben couldn’t blame him. It was unbelievably hot out here and he was planning on stripping out of his jeans and dress shirt as soon as Dean would let him.

xxx

Sam turned to look at the back of the funeral home when the commotion started. He felt a chill race across his body when he saw his brother there, and in its wake there was a horrible pins-and-needles feeling of numbness. Then he watched his brother stumble into a flower arrangement and all of that was swept away by the rage.

He handed Peter off to his mother-in-law and made a beeline for the door, snagging his brother’s arm and dragging him out into the parking lot. Sam caught a quick glimpse of Bobby following behind which made him a little more angry; fucking Uncle Bobby had brought Dean to Jess’ funeral while his brother was drop-down drunk.

“What are you doing here?” he hissed once they were out in the parking lot. Dean looked like hell, swaying a little in the waning sunlight with at least three days worth of stubble on his face.

Dean took a longer time than should have been necessary to focus on Sam’s features. “I’m here for the funeral,” he said.

“No. You don’t get to do this. You’ve met Jess once, didn’t come to the wedding, and never came to see Peter when he was born. You can’t show up now, acting like this, and expect to just slide right back into my life. I don’t want you here. From now on you stay away from me and my son. We don’t need you here, and I don’t want you here.” Sam gave Bobby a glare for good measure and stalked back inside, purposefully not looking back.

Dean was not going to screw up Peter’s life with all the crap that came along with being a Hunter. Sam wasn’t going to let it happen.

xxx

Plumbing the depths of county records hadn’t taken that long in the grand scheme of things. Sam was a tiny bit impressed by how quickly it had gone. Ben made a beeline for the bathroom as soon as they got back, coming back in a T-shirt and shorts. Dean didn’t even bother with the bathroom, swapping out his suit with jeans and worn cotton where he stood in the living room. They reconvened at Sam’s kitchen table once Sam had changed, pooling all the information they’d gathered separately and beginning a renewed search for patterns. Searching for a spirit like this was more difficult because it wasn’t tied to one specific location or family, and Sam became more on edge the longer it dragged out. Dean talked him into taking a rest after two hours of research, but it was short and fitful and plagued with nightmares. Every time he closed his eyes he saw Peter’s frightened face, those big eyes that he’d gotten from Jessica taking up half of his face. Oddly enough, that was preferable to the one hastily aborted dream where he buried Peter next to Jessica. Dean woke him up from that one, his expression oddly sympathetic. It made Sam wonder what he had let slip while he slept.

“I think we’ve got a lead,” he said, heading back to the kitchen table. It was barely recognizable as such right now, littered with papers and books and crowded with two different laptops. “Looks like most of this town was built on an old cattle ranch. The owner couldn’t make a go of it, so he sold out in the 1880’s and moved back east.”

“Any kids?”

“Wife died in childbirth to their one daughter, who died when she was six. Cause of death wasn’t listed.”

Sam thought about that for a second. Dead mother, no brothers or sisters to play with, and no neighbors to make friends with either: it sounded close to the parameters that Dean had set. A lonely kid that died young. “That sounds promising. If the whole town used to be her home, she could pretty much go anywhere she wanted.”

“And the family had their own burial plot near the house, since there wasn’t exactly a town back then. You up for a visit?”

They took the Impala, of course. It would have been too much trouble to transfer everything they needed to Sam’s car, and the Mazda wasn’t really built to handle the rough trails that they would need to travel on to get to their destination. The original house was still standing, although you could tack on the word ‘barely’ without any stretching. Sam had been to a hundred places like this when he was a kid, either squatting with his dad and Dean or trying to pin down something that needed to be taken out Dean had broken his leg in a house like this when they were both teenagers, tossed by a spirit while their father burned the bones twelve miles away. It was a little disturbing how easily he’d slipped back into this life.

Dean propped open the false bottom of the trunk, setting off a series of even less pleasant memories. He hadn’t handled a weapon in years, though he still had a gun tucked away in a lockbox in his apartment. Ben treated the things inside with the kind of cautious respect of someone who had been trained very well but hadn’t actually had to use them in the field somewhere. “Here, Sam,” Dean said, turning around and handing him a sawed-off shotgun. “I figure you’re pretty rusty. You should be all right with this.”

“The ghost isn’t going to be bothered by buckshot,” Sam protested.

“It’s rock salt in the shells. Something I came up with when I needed something a little more portable than a salt line. It’s kind of caught on with other Hunters now. Bobby told everyone.”

“That should work,” Sam said, accepting the weapon. He filled his pockets with extra shells, making sure he could access them easily.

Ben was given a shovel, which he accepted with a roll of his eyes, and Dean took a second shovel and a duffel bag that Sam knew probably contained lighter fluid, salt and a second shotgun. He passed the duffel over to Ben and pulled out a third shotgun, checking to see if it was loaded before looking back up at Sam. “All right. Sam, you head into the house looking for any sign of Peter. We’re going to find the grave and get started.”

“What if it’s not this one?”

“Then it’s back to square one. But I’ve got a feeling about this one. I think Elizabeth borrowed Peter so she’d have someone to play ring around the rosey. Call when you find him.” Dean headed around the porch with his son, walking towards the back of the house, and Sam swallowed, made sure the shotgun was loaded, and stepped through the door.

The floorboards creaked with each step, and he had to place every foot very precisely because some of them were clearly rotted. The inside of the house was almost unnaturally still and was almost ten degrees cooler than the bright sunshine of the yard. His eyes adjusted to the gloom quickly and Sam went through each room on the first floor with caution, checking every spot that might be small enough for his son to be hidden.

He found the first body in the kitchen, tucked away into a cupboard like the child had fallen asleep while playing hide and seek. This one was mostly skeletonized. The next one was not. His experience let him ballpark the small corpse in the linen closet as somewhere around a year old, though he was sure an actual professional could tell more. The third one was lying on a rotted mattress upstairs and was somewhere between the other two.

Every fatherly instinct that Sam now possessed was screaming at him, had been screaming since the first body he’d discovered. He had a sudden, shocking appreciation for John Winchester and why he’d always been so angry. It was hard to keep up his methodical search for his son when the clock was obviously ticking away. Only the knowledge that he would be wasting time running around in a blind panic kept Sam from doing just that.

There were two more skeletons upstairs, one hidden away in a toy chest and the last piled on the floor of an old wardrobe, but no trace of Peter. The way the bones were hidden made Sam think that they had all died of thirst or starvation, like the children they had once been had curled up and gone to sleep and just never woken up. They almost looked like discarded toys that a small child had dropped when they grew bored.

With the first two floors cleared, Sam was beginning to feel the icy grip of panic. The only place left to search in the house was the storm cellar, and given the way Elizabeth had been playing with the other children he didn’t think it was likely that they would be down there in the dark.

Sam headed out of the house after ten more minutes of searching. There was no trace of Peter anywhere inside, and he was now well past the point of complete and utter terror. Dean and Ben had made excellent progress on Elizabeth’s grave, though they hadn’t gotten there completely. “He’s not in the house.”

“Damn it,” Dean cursed, looking up from his grave-digging. “Do we have the right spirit?”

“There’s five other corpses inside, so I’d say yes,” Sam told him. “We probably ought to just burn the whole place down once we’ve found Peter.” He hated to think of the parents of these children never knowing what happened, but this was a recipe for a really nasty haunting. Just add time for the spirits of those dead kids to become angry and watch the deaths occur.

“All right,” Dean said, returning to his work with a grunt. “You two split up and search the outbuildings. Maybe there’s one that she likes to use as a playhouse.” He looked up at Ben once the teenager had scrambled out of the grave. “Be careful, Ben. Take the EMF meter and the shotgun.”

A small part of Sam was impressed by the way the boy avoided rolling his eyes. Sam would have done so if he hadn’t been so worried about finding Peter. “I’ll take the barn,” he said, and Ben nodded in agreement.

“Dibs on the tool shed.” Ben rummaged through the duffel bag and pulled out something that looked like Frankenstein’s walkman and the third shotgun. Sam watched as the teenager double-checked to make sure that the weapon was loaded before hurrying toward the building.

The barn was slightly colder than the house had been which was a good sign if you were actively looking for a ghost. Sam felt hope mixed with wariness. His son was here. He could feel it in his bones.

There was a rustling in the hayloft as he was checking the third empty stall. It was the first noise he had heard that wasn’t created by the three of them since they’d arrived. “Peter?” he called. There was no sense in being too stealthy. The ghost knew he was here.

The rustling started again, joined by a childish giggle. Sam stiffened and brought the shotgun up to bear, thankful that Dean had come up with the idea of salt-filled shotgun shells. If Peter was there, the salt would be non-lethal. Though the thought that it would also probably hurt made his heart clench a little. “Its Dad, kiddo. You in here?”

He caught the flicker out of the corner of his eye as the form of a little girl appeared beside him. “You can’t have him,” she said petulantly. “I need someone to play with. We’re going to play together forever. Besides, he doesn’t want to go with you.”

“But he needs to,” Sam pointed out. He hoped Dean hurried with the grave. Trying to talk sense into a spirit was a dicey proposition at best. He’d managed to do it once, back when he was in high school, but their father never had. It was why Hunters tended to just default to a salt and burn. If a spirit managed to catch the attention of a Hunter, it was usually because they’d already gone round the bend. “The same thing that happened to the others will happen to him. He needs food and water and rest.”

She pouted and twined her fingers on the hem of her shirt. She was dressed like a boy, her clothing dirty and stained and her hair pulled back into a messy braid. Sam was a little surprised that she had managed to manifest at all, since the sun was only starting to set. It added an extra degree of danger to the whole situation. Elizabeth was much stronger than she appeared. “But I’m bored,” she said, her voice a grating whine that was a little scarier than it should be. “None of them ever stay and keep me company. They always go away.”

There was a chance they would be coming back, Sam knew. At least five children in the house, who knew how many more, all forced to play with the spirit of this little girl until they dropped dead. “Maybe you should try going away, too,” he said. “Didn’t you ever get the chance to move on?”

Elizabeth’s expression was sulky. “I didn’t want to,” she said. “It looked boring.”

Sam had been a father long enough to interpret that as something else entirely. “You were scared,” he said, careful to keep his voice gentle. “That’s all right. People get scared sometimes.”

“I wasn’t scared,” she said, voice filled with bravado. “I just didn’t want to go without my dad. I didn’t want to leave him. And then he went away. He left me here.”

“I’m sure he didn’t want to,” Sam said, trying to stay calm and soothing while his heart raced and he mentally urged his brother to hurry the hell up with that grave. Children were hard to reason with as it was, and spirits were always so much more single-minded. “I would never want to leave Peter.”

“He left me,” she said, the tone of her voice far more angry now. “He left me all alone.”

The hair on Sam’s arms and on the back of his neck stood up straight. This would probably be a good time to use the shotgun in his hands, but if he did he lost any chance of reasoning with the ghost. “He’s probably waiting for you right now,” he tried.

The form of the little girl glared up at him and Sam felt himself being pushed hard, shoved away. She flickered for a second and returned to seeming solidity. “Go away! I don’t want you here!”

“Stop it!”

Sam looked up into the hayloft to see his son’s tired, somewhat petulant face. “You leave my Daddy alone,” he said.

“He’s trying to take you away,” the ghost said, looking like she was about to cry. It was all smoke and mirrors and manipulation, of course, and even Peter seemed to realize it.

“I want my daddy,” he said, with all the crankiness an overly tired child could muster. Sam knew that it amounted to quite a bit. “I want to go home!”

“And I want to play,” she shot back, stomping a foot. Rotting horse tackle and the few pieces of rusted, broken equipment rattled from their scattered positions.

Sam mentally pleaded with his brother to hurry. There would be no talking this one down. He had spent enough time with spoiled, angry children while shuttling Peter to his different classes over the years to know. Time to stall and hope Dean got to the bones before Elizabeth killed him or Peter, or possibly both.

The ghost seemed to be unable to decide which of the Winchesters she was going after. Sam decided to make it easier for her. “Too bad. I’m pretty sure what you need is a spanking. You’re a spoiled brat and you need to stop hurting other kids.”

The expression on the ghost’s face was pretty much a mask of complete rage. Apparently no one had told her what to do in a very long time. Sam had just enough time to bring the shotgun up to bear, shoot, and duck out of the way of a broken, rusted saw blade.

The salt rounds worked as promised, dissolving the apparition with a scream. Sam hoped it was painful. “Peter, come down. Hurry!”

“No!” Elizabeth rematerialized and made a grab for Sam. He returned the favor with a second blast from the shotgun. He realized his mistake almost immediately and fumbled to reload. It had been a very long time since he’d handled a shotgun.

The ghost was faster. “You can’t have him,” she screamed and Sam felt himself be shoved away and into the wall of the barn. The structure groaned ominously, the beams of the hayloft creaking.

“Peter, get out of the hayloft!” Sam finished reloading the shells into the shotgun and blasted the ghost again. He saw Peter’s blond head, a shade or two darker than the rotting hay, as his son stepped onto the ladder. His heart was hammering in his chest as he watched Peter make his careful way down the old ladder. They had to get out of this barn. The whole place was a death trap, a weapon that the ghost could use to take them both out of the picture if it chose.

Elizabeth reappeared by the ladder up in the hayloft, and Sam took aim and fired once more. He’d learned from last time and had the shells ready to go, hurrying to reload as soon as he had fired. Peter picked up his pace on the ladder, moving more quickly, and was on the ground and at Sam’s side before the ghost came after him again. There was fear on his small face now, but Sam didn’t have time to comfort him or contemplate the loss of his child’s innocence. He shot the ghost again and made a hasty retreat out of the old barn.

The structure shuddered as they crossed outside into the twilight. Sam kept moving away, shotgun held ready while Peter clung to his free hand. He had a feeling it was about to come down on top of them. There was a loud crashing sound, probably a beam giving way inside, and Sam heard a high-pitched, pained scream before everything abruptly went still.

His cell rang thirty seconds later, and Sam was forced to let go of Peter’s hand to answer it. He was understandably reluctant to release his hold on the shotgun.

“You got him?” Dean asked, not bothering with preamble. “The bones are toast.”

“Yeah, I’ve got him. It’s safe?”

“Should be. I’ll call Ben and we’ll tend the fire a little bit longer, make sure the bones are broken down to dust. You go ahead and take Pete to the car, get him some food and water. There’s granola bars in the backseat.”

Sam was too relieved to have his son back safe in his arms to rib on his brother’s food choices. Apparently having a steady girlfriend had resulted in the impossible and made Dean give up on the junk food. “Bottled water in the trunk?”

“Yeah, there’s a flat of it. Go ahead, we’ll take care of this now and fill in the grave afterwards before we call the cops and leave an anonymous tip.”

“You don’t want to burn the bones?”

“I’m sure those kids will all be cremated once the coroner is done with them. That tends to make it harder for ghosts to stick around, and if they weren’t upset enough to manifest now they probably won’t.” Dean fumbled his phone a little on his end. “Having your kid disappear on you is its own special hell. Someone missed them and will want some kind of closure. I’m calling Ben back to help me with the grave. Take care of your kid, Sammy. We’ll finish up here and meet you there in a half hour.”

Peter was disturbingly quiet and pliant in his arms as he Sam hefted him up and carried him to the Impala. He hoped it was merely exhaustion, hunger, and thirst that made him this way. If the ghost had managed to leave some sort of taint behind even after they had burned the bones it would be almost impossible to break.

His son drank obediently when Sam gave him a bottle of water, his blue eyes shadowed as his gaze darted around the rotting farmhouse that was slowly being overcome by the dark. “I want to go home,” Peter croaked, and Sam pulled him in closer. The boy was getting a little too old for such displays of affection, at the ripe age of seven, and the fact that he not only allowed the hug but clung a little more tightly was evidence of how horrible the experience had been.

“We’re going soon, I promise,” Sam said. “We have to wait. I had someone here to help find you, and we have to wait for him.”

It was completely dark by the time Dean and Ben came back to the car. They’d cleaned up a little, which Sam appreciated. He remembered how bad a grave could smell, even one this old. The creak of the trunk opening and the clunk of the equipment being put away stirred Peter out of his shallow sleep. His son twitched and flinched at the unexpected sounds, but unexpectedly settled once Dean got into the driver’s seat and started the engine.

“Ready to go home?” Dean asked, glancing at Sam in the rearview, and Sam felt a rush of gratitude for his brother and his blunt, straightforward attitude. Peter was looking more comfortable and more relaxed than he had since Sam had found him, and Dean was at least partially responsible for that.

“We’re ready, Dean.”

Part Three