…And Innocents

By: Ridley C. James

“Men travel side by side for years, each locked up in his own silence or exchanging those words which carry no freight-till danger comes. Then they stand shoulder to shoulder. They discover that they belong to the same family.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Outside of Fayetville, West Virginia, December 7, 2006

Dean threw his things onto one of the double beds in yet another crappy hotel room he would be sharing with his younger brother and sighed. “If you're done talking on the phone, princess, you can help me finish unloading the car.”

It had been a long afternoon, even a longer morning, having interviewed the few witnesses to the apparent ghostly appearance of a headless phantom haunting a local high school gymnasium. Turns out the place was more One Tree Hill High than Hogwarts, and one of the local jocks had merely wanted to terrorize his ex-girlfriend. Although Dean did give him credit for actually digging up a rotting corpse to play the part. But grave desecration wasn't theirs to handle, unless they were the ones wielding the shovels.

Sam rolled his eyes at him and continued yammering into the phone, punching a few keys on the lap top as he talked. Either the twenty-three-year-old was talking to Sarah, which was doubtful because those heart-to-hearts had petered out fairly quickly, especially after the run in with the demon and their father's death, or he was conversing with Reaves.

Dean frowned at the thought. The other hunter had been checking in with a regular frequency, which in all honesty was what Dean wanted, but it was also annoying because Caleb seemed to be trying to do what Dean wanted him to do-which was not the way the eldest Winchester wanted it at all. Damn him.

“Sam!” Dean snapped, clicking his fingers together in a snapping motion. “I'm not bringing your shit in. Broken arm or not, you're pulling your own weight.”

His younger brother gave him a demonstration of just how much his dexterity had improved on his injured hand by saluting him with his middle finger, but still didn't move from his spot at the desk.

Dean growled. “Tell Reaves you don't have time to fuck around on his case. We have work of our own to do.” It wasn't true. They hadn't found one interesting thing in Fayetville since their original gig went bust-except for the New River Gorge Bridge, which only made Dean think of Caleb, and the fact he wasn't thinking about Caleb.

Sam frowned at him and made a big show of punching the end button on his phone. “That wasn't Caleb, jerk. It was Rebecca. She called to say a late Happy Thanksgiving. Her and some of my other friends were on the pre-finals skiing trip.” A hint of sadness, remorse maybe, momentarily replaced irritation. “It's the first one they've gone on since Jess-since I left.”

“Sorry,” Dean said, regretfully. “I didn't know.”

“Right.” Sam favored him with a sour look. He closed the lap top. “What is your problem, anyway?”

“I don't have a problem.”

“You've been pissy since we left Fayetville.”

Actually it had been since they crossed that expanse of that stupid bridge-the longest arch in history, not to mention the highest in the country. Dean really hated heights. “Nothing's wrong with me. I'm just irritated with young love gone to the hell hounds. I mean zombies, pacts with the devil, and now decapitating helpless corpses. It's all these freakin' horror movies-you know that, right?”

Sam's frown grew. “This from guy who wanted to sell his autobiography to M. Night Shyamalan?”

“I was going to change a few things first.” Dean's mouth twitched. “For one you were so going to be a hot girl I picked up somewhere along Route 66-played by none other than Jessica Alba.”

“Good. I'd rather not be included in your morbid Brothers Grimm-like porn-fest.”

“Fine, but when I'm rolling in the royalties don't come around crying for change for your next venti caramel mocha latte fix.”

Sam rolled his eyes and started past him to go and get the rest of his things, but noticed his duffel by the door. “I thought you left my stuff in the Impala.”

Dean shrugged and picked up some things to head for the shower. “I must have gotten it by mistake.”

Sam gave him a doubtful glance. “You just wanted me off the phone.”

“I thought it was Reaves.”

The younger hunter propped his hands on his hips, eyed his brother in an all too familiar way. “And what is it with you and Caleb?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that you have been pissed at him for a few weeks now. What's the deal?”

“There is no deal. I just don't like him telling us what to do.”

Sam's brow furrowed. “Dean, he's not been telling us what to do. He's trying to help.”

“Well, I don't want his help.”

“Since when? You've never had a problem asking for it before. I thought he was your best friend?”

“Best friend?” Dean snorted. “Do we look like we're in elementary school to you, Sammy? You want to pass me a note so I can check yes or no to whether I still want to toss some football at recess with little Caleb Reaves?”

“I know what this is really about.”

“You do?” Dean shook his head. “I forgot that you've become an expert on my feelings lately. Please, oh great Zambini, tell me what's going on.”

“You're afraid he's going to get himself killed-just like…”

“Shut-up, Sam!” Dean growled. “Not everything comes back to that.”

“Doesn't it?” Sam was so tired of beating round and round the same dried-up bush. “You started acting all weird when Caleb gave me the journal, when he sold Tri-Corp. You going to tell me that didn't send warning bells going off in your head.”

Actually it had been his gut. That pit in his stomach that had told him something was terribly wrong back at the hospital all those weeks ago before his father had died had kicked in with fervor again-screaming at him that something terrible was coming. “I'm going to take a shower.”

“He called this morning while you were getting breakfast.”

Dean stopped his trek into the tiny bathroom, but didn't turn around. He instead lifted his gaze to look at his brother's reflection in the vanity he was facing. “So.”

“He's in North Carolina, checking out something for Boone-said he wouldn't be able to contact us for a while. He said he didn't want you to get your girly panties in a knot when he didn't check in like a good little soldier.”

That ache was back-had been lurking in the dark recesses since he'd seen that bridge. Dean had felt something as the steel beast had come into view. When they crossed over it an old, long, lost friend crept across him like a shadow of a stealthy enemy. Sort of like smelling apple pie and seeing Jim Murphy's smiling face flash before his eyes, or eating a peanut butter cookie and remembering the phantom feel of his mother's embrace around him. The weathered steel had conjured Caleb's deep voice, even over the blaring Metallica filling the Impala's interior. 'The Earth be spanned, lands be welded together.'

He cleared his throat. “How long is a while?”

Sam raked a hand through his hair. “I'm not sure. He was going undercover in some kind of cult.”

At that Dean rolled his eyes. “Him and his damn Jonestown complex.” Anger filled in the tiny fissures in the wall around his emotions, pushing out the worry. “ Besides, what's the deal with him thinking I want him to check in any fucking way? I could give a shit if he misses Christmas.” He didn't want to celebrate the fucking holiday to begin with. To him it would be just another day, just like Thanksgiving.

Sam shook his head slightly at his brother's emotional roller coaster routine. “You ever think it might not be about you, Dean. That maybe it has something to do with him.”

The older Winchester frowned. “Like what? He gets to feel superior about keeping us away from the Roadhouse and the other big, bad non-union hunters.”

“No,” Sam sighed. “That maybe he was use to checking in with Dad every week or so-that maybe he misses him.”

No. That couldn't be it. Because that would mean Caleb was carbon-based just like the rest of the human race. Just like the rest of the people that had up and died on him. It would mean whatever scary-assed, psychic mojo Dean was feeling might actually be some kind of freaky warning. “Now you're just anthropomorphizing.”

Sam looked disappointed, and it sent another lancing pain into his older brother's heart. “And he said he'd still meet us in Virginia-whether that matters to you or not.”

Damn it all to hell. It was easier to be pissed than concerned or remorseful. “Sure he will, Tiny Tim. Just keep telling yourself that along with that little fantasy about Scrooge showing up with that huge turkey and all the trimmings. Santa might even bring you that Optimus Prime you never got.”

Sam wasn't going to bite. He was tired of letting his brother off the hook. “Caleb's never lied to us, Dean. He's done some things to piss me off over the years, but he's never broken a promise.”

“Well I can recall a few he's screwed me over with.”

“To save your life, maybe,” Sam countered, sticking up for the other hunter.

Didn't his brother realize enough people had let him down for that very same reason. “Yeah, it's easy to make excuses when it's your hero you're talking about, Sam.”

His brother held his gaze, and Dean felt the moment the other man's frustration changed to that empathetic pity Sam was so prone to. “You're right. It is.” After all, Sam had watched his brother do it for years. Hell, he'd even gotten some practice in rationalizing Dean, especially since losing their father. The pained look on his brother's face and the mounting tension between them had him suddenly craving some much needed space. He grabbed his jacket and the Impala's keys. “I'm going to get some food.”

“Wait,” Dean's voice stopped him, his hand hovering over the door handle.

“Did Caleb happen to say what the name of that cult was?” Maybe Dean would just look it up. “Say what kind of situation he was walking in to?” Get a feel for what might be going on.

Sam turned and looked at him, shaking his head. “No. Some of that need to know basis shit that was drilled into his head, I guess.”

Dean nodded, swallowing thickly. “Yeah.”

Sam's countenance softened at the lost quality to his brother's voice. “Look. He'll be fine, Dean. Joshua’s close by to back him up.”

“Yeah, well Joshua’s an idiot and Caleb won’t listen to anything he says.”

Sam sighed heavily. “He’ll be in Virginia.”

The older Winchester shrugged it off. “Of course he will. Bastard won't miss a free meal and a chance to ruin my favorite holiday.”

“You hate holidays, Dean,” Sam pointed out.

“Exactly, Damien will want to be around to make sure I'm enjoying myself.”

“Yeah, because he hates you so much.”

His older brother nodded. “Remember that Thanksgiving back in 2001? He just couldn't let it go.”

The younger man shook his head trying to dislodge the unwanted memory and opened the door. “And for that little stroll down memory lane, you're getting a salad.” He couldn’t help but to think of how close his brother had come to dying that year, and Caleb, too. They’d nearly lost both of them.

“Bring anything less than a double cheeseburger and fries, Sammy, and Caleb won't be the only one in the doghouse.” Dean called after him, collapsing face-first onto the bed after the door slammed shut.

The young hunter rolled over to his back, feeling exhaustion prickling at him. The shower was forgotten as sleep seemed to be much more of a priority. He stretched and let his arms come to rest beneath his head, his eyes blinking as he fought off a jaw-popping yawn. Dean tried to tell himself he was just being ridiculous about the whole 'bad-feeling' thing. After all, Sam was the weirdo psychic in the family.

But then his wandering gaze found the picture over the desk on the far wall, and his heart skipped a beat. It was a landscape of recently traversed Fayetville, West Virginia, and Dean knew that because dead center, glaring accusingly back at him, was the New River Gorge bridge. Now who was anthropomorphizing?

Onto Part 2
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