The Decisive Moment

By: Ridley James

Beta: Tidia

“The decisive moment, it is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second,

of the significance of an event…”-Henri Carier-Bresson

His cell phone was ringing. Dean recognized the familiar Star Wars theme he’d designated for Caleb. Dean sighed when he saw that it was just after midnight. He grabbed the small earpiece from the nightstand. “This better be good, Damien.” Dean kept his voice low so not to wake Juliet. She was used to late night calls, whether Brotherhood related or her own emergencies from the animal clinic. “Working people are in bed.”

Dean, where are the boys?”

“What’s wrong?” The uncharacteristic use of his name had Dean quickly sitting up, forgetting his thoughts of sleep. Damien’s tone knotted his gut with dread. His first thoughts were of Ben, home for the weekend, but out on the town with some of his old high school buddies.

Is JT there?”

“No.” Dean kicked the covers off his legs. He instinctively strained his ears, desperately hoping to catch some sounds of his sons from down the hall, but knew their beds were empty. He’d been relieved to have a weekend of quiet, the summer giving the boys too much quality time together so that they were at each other’s throats and on his nerves . He never remembered fighting so much with Sam or Caleb. Juliet was already looking at extended school programs for next year. “Why? What’s going on?”

Where the hell is he? Josh’s?”

“No. They went camping. Max is with them.” Dean got out of bed, nearly stepping on D’Artagnan who had invaded their room in the boys’ absence. He stumbled towards the bathroom, quietly closing the door before flipping the light. “Damien?”

I know they’re together. I had a vision. We need to get to them.”

“You asked about JT? What the fuck did you see?” The pause was too long. Caleb was thinking of how to spin it, that was never a good thing. “Just tell me, goddamnit!”

I saw a spirit, a really pissed off spirit. I don’t know if it’s happened yet. Can you call them?”

“No.” Dean rubbed a hand over his mouth, his mistake stirring the bile already churning his stomach. He looked at his reflection in the mirror. Hunters never worked without a means of communication, but these were his sons. They were at a church function not on a gig. He closed his eyes, moving to the toilet. Dean felt sick. “They weren’t allowed to take their phones, no technology of any sorts.”

What the fuck?”

“I know!” Dean growled. So much for getting back to grass roots and communing with nature. He didn’t need The Knight yelling at him. He had royally screwed up. It was a harmless camping trip with the youth group; one Ben had gone on twice with no incident when he was younger. “Just tell me what else you saw, man.”

They were attacked. JT’s hurt.”

Dean squeezed his eyes shut, bringing his fist to his mouth. “How bad?”

We need to hurry.”


How far away are they?”

“Not far. North Carolina. I’ve got a map” Ben put a copy on the refrigerator. He had highlighted the trail for JT, pointing out some scenic waterfalls and balds he thought his younger brother might like. At least somebody was on their game. “Ben knows the area. He’s home for the weekend. We can meet you.”

Good. I’m not too far.”

Dean recalled the hunt Caleb had just finished with Ethan. They had been in Arkansas. “I’ll call Sammy. Juliet can stay with Mary. Someone needs to call Josh. I think he’s in L.A. on business.”

Deuce…there’s something else.”

Dean held his breath, afraid of what his best friend might have been holding back. “Tell me.”

I sensed another presence, something different from the spirit.”


It was demon.”

Dean’s body tensed, his muscles threatening to snap under the strain. The war was supposed to be behind them. He was cold, all panic dissolving under the familiar threat. He breathed deeply, his mind narrowing to focus on one goal, and one goal only. His children would be fine. Everyone was coming home alive. No other end was acceptable. “I’ll call you from the road.”

James Murphy Winchester was not a happy camper. He was hot, tired, covered in bug bites and what might have been poison ivy. The three night wilderness trip with the church’s youth group had seemed like a cool way to spend the final weekend of summer break. It would get him out of his normal chores around the farm. There would be camping, swimming, Smores, and ample opportunity for him to show off his outdoor prowess to Holly West.

Ben had talked it up as a once in a life-time experience. James should have been suspicious that his oldest brother had liked the trip when he was a teenager. Siblings were not to be trusted. There was no mention of the freakishly large mosquitoes, the inescapable heat, or treacherous plant life. Holly batting her eyes at Max Sawyer all weekend was just the icing on the cake.

“This sucks!” His idiot brother, JT had them back on the trail in the middle of the night adding to the already eight miles of hiking they had done earlier in the day with the group. When the two older boys in front of him didn’t respond, James picked up a rock and threw it at JT’s back. Like the other two he’d already bounced off his brother, this one wasn’t big enough to do any damage, but he hoped it hurt.

“That’s it!” It was enough to garner a reaction. JT stopped his forward stride and turned to glare at James while trying to rub the unreachable spot between his shoulder blades. He shined his flashlight in James’s face. “Do it again and I’m leaving you hogtied on the side of the trail for the rangers to find.”

“I’d like to see you try.” James didn’t care if his brother was older, had the height and weight advantage. In sparring JT always held back a little because James was younger and smaller and JT was just a little too nice for his own good. It had given James an advantage over the years. One he had no problem exploiting.

“I can have you pinned, roped and gagged in ten seconds flat,” Max said. He was standing beside JT, strands of his long blond hair plastered to his face by sweat. James knew JT was the only one of the three psyched about the trip so far, but Max would take JT’s side on principle alone. “So quit being a brat before I destroy you.”

“Whatever, douche bag.” Max who was not nice was admittedly a bigger threat than JT, but James’s misery had him feeling reckless. Most times James appreciated the fact Max didn’t hold anything back; that the older boy didn’t coddle him. However, it didn’t bode well for pissing him off, especially when there was no adult supervision. “One word from me to Uncle Caleb and you’re running maneuvers until you hurl.”

“It will be hard to talk to Uncle Caleb with a fat lip.” Max started toward him.

“Don’t,” JT said, catching Max’s arm.

“Why not?”

“He’s hot, itchy and tired.” JT adjusted the strap on his daypack, wiping the back of his arm over his forehead with a heavy sigh. “Let it go.”

“No, I’m not.” James frowned at his brother’s tolerant tone, acting as if he were a parent dealing with a cranky toddler.

JT continued to talk to Max as if James hadn’t spoken. “He’s trying to push your buttons.”

“It’s working.” Max pulled away. “He’s done nothing but bitch and moan since we left camp. I don’t understand why he came with us in the first place.”

“It’s a free world.” James had come along on his brother’s jaunt because it was too freaking hot in their tent to sleep, and was secretly hoping for some kind of action, like catching the girls skinny dipping by moonlight. JT had other plans, much geekier ones. “If anyone is the tag-a-long here it’s you. You’re not even in the youth group. You only visit the church on weekends when you stay at the farm.”

“Jimmy,” JT warned.

“It’s true.” James rolled his eyes at his brother’s concern for other people’s feelings. Max’s ego was oblivious to insults. He also hated camping, considering Pastor Jim’s cabin as extreme roughing it. There was only one reason he opted in, but JT was blind to it. “You just came to make time with the girls.”

“Like that’s not why you were so hot to sign up for Logan’s foray into the forest.” Max didn’t deny it, but of course turned it back on James.

“Logan’s a cool guy,” James defended. “He made it sound fun and educational.” Logan was their youth pastor, friends with Ben. He’d hiked the entire Appalachian Trail with his roommate after graduating from college and believed one could find spiritual enlightenment by reconnecting with nature. James hadn’t really caught much of the minister’s excited spiel about the trip because Holly had chosen that morning to wear a sundress. James could just make out the tan lines left by her bathing suit strap from two pews behind her.

“Yeah because you’re so into flora and fauna.” Max stared him down. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you scanned the sign-up sheet for a certain redhead’s name before putting your John Hancock. The only nature you had on your mind was the birds and the bees.”

“Hey!” JT panned his light between them, momentarily blinding them both. “Cut it out. Dad would call Pot and Kettle. Let’s just leave it at that, get back to camp before anyone notices we’re gone.”

“He started it.” Max pointed accusingly at James.

“You’re the one who stuck your nose where it didn’t belong.” James hadn’t forgotten how Max had found the perfect excuse to take his shirt off in front of the girls by offering it to clumsy Tara, who’d fallen in the creek while trying to cross it. Holly practically swooned.

“Please tell me you’re not talking about the little girl you like because she’s a kid.” Max made sure ‘kid’ sounded like a slur. “I’m a senior.”

“She’s my age!” Holly and James would both be in the eighth grade at New Haven Middle and Max wouldn’t technically be a senior until school started back. “Thirteen!”

“Exactly my point,” Max said in the smug way that made James want to smash him in the face. “She’s practically a baby.”

“You two are worse than Josie and Mary.” JT had his hands on his hips, eyebrows drawn together in what James liked to call his holier than though face.

“Shut up.” James lifted his middle finger in his brother’s direction. JT comparing him to their baby cousin and Max’s little sister had James redirecting his wrath. “This is all your fault!”

“My fault?”

“You’re the one who was so pumped about camping.” James watched JT’s face go from self-righteous to indignant. “You’re the one who just had to have that perfect shot from the ridge.”

“He has a point,” Max jumped in, surprising James by taking his side. “You did drag us out in the middle of the night for some stupid picture of the moon.”

“I didn’t ask you two to come,” JT said. He started walking again, panning the flashlight in front of them. “I would have been fine by myself. I’m the Eagle Scout.”

“Please, Henri.” Max snorted. He slid over to make room for James. “You were so focused on lighting, lenses and shutter speed you would have walked right off the ridge if we hadn’t been there to watch your back.”

“Don’t forget him finding his ‘decisive moment’,” James said, stepping in between them. JT had been obsessed with the famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson for the last two years. His hero-worship of the father of photojournalism verged on fanatical and provided Max and James with a lot of good material. JT found making fun of the world’s greatest photographer blasphemous, which only made it funnier. It only got better when Uncle Caleb used one of his art contacts to track down the coveted pristine copy of Cartier-Bresson’s photo book The Decisive Moment for JT’s birthday. JT put it on display above his bed. No one was allowed to touch it, more hallowed than his collection of autographed Red Sox baseballs.

“Right,” JT said. “I was lucky I could concentrate at all with you and Max sniping at each other.”

“So if you didn’t get the Pulitzer Prize winning shot you’re hoping for, it’s going to be our fault?” Max asked.

“Most definitely,” JT replied.

“I’m more interested in seeing him explain how he got the shot,” James said. JT could block out a sonic blast when he was behind a camera lens. He could also become obsessed with a shot to the exclusion of everything else - including parental wrath. “Mom’s going to notice the picture was taken at night and that it was taken from an extremely high location. Remember when you had to have that picture of the elusive barn owl. She busted you for climbing up into the rafters.”

“He’s right.” Max reached over and tugged the camera strap hanging around JT’s neck. “That’s damning evidence against us. Dean will be pissed I went along with your sucky plan. I vote it never sees the light of day.”

“I always go along with your sucky plans. I’m developing it,” JT said, quickening his pace as if the potential photo might be in danger. “I’ll just tell them I manipulated the image.”

“You mean lie?” James laughed. The suggestion was hilarious. “To Mom and Dad?”

“Yes,” JT said.

Max shook his head, James catching his grin even in the faint moonlight. “Not very Eagle Scout of you, Dude.”

“Not very likely either,” James said. “He can’t even lie to us, let alone an adult. Then there’s the whole breaking rules thing. Not great at that either. It’s why you didn’t ask Pastor Logan if you could go back to the bald. You knew he would say no, and you didn’t want to be in direct insubordination.”

“I can lie,” JT argued. “I break rules.”

“You told us you were going to take a piss,” Max said. “Ten bucks says you have your Eagle Scout handbook on you somewhere.”

“That was a plausible story.” JT huffed, not commenting on the manual.

“La-me,” Max stretched the word into two syllables.

“You had your backpack and your camera,” James said. JT and his Nikon might have been inseparable, but there wasn’t much to see between where they had pitched their tent and the tree line. “And you shifted your eyes slightly to the right.”

“Whatever.” JT pulled farther ahead of them. “How about you two find your own way back to camp?”

“I could do it if I had to.” James was almost certain that was true. He was a good tracker, but hadn’t exactly been focused on their surroundings on the way out of camp.

“We didn’t mark the trail.” Max flashed him a doubtful look. “I think I’ll stick with the Eagle Scout.”

“Chicken shit,” James called after Max who kicked his pace up to a jog to catch up to JT. James wasn’t in the mood for a run. Tormenting his brother had momentarily taken his mind from his current misery, but they were still a good couple of miles from camp, and James was getting a headache. He stopped for a drink from his canteen, figuring dehydration as the culprit.

“Keep moving, Jimmy,” JT called without turning around. “I’m not kidding about leaving you.”

“See my earlier note about Uncle Caleb,” James hissed. He took a long drink before recapping the flask. The water was cool on his parched throat, but the headache notched up. The sudden increase in pain had him thinking he would lay it on thick for The Knight, hoping their uncle would relish doling out extra training to the two bullies.

“There could be bears.”

Max’s voice floated back to him and James clenched his fists. He hated bears. Pushing past the throbbing in his skull, James started moving again only to find himself face to face with another person on the trail.

“Shit!” he yelped, stumbling backwards. The headache made sense now as bitter cold permeated his body, quickly displacing the heat of the humid night. It was a warning-dead man walking or in this case, hiking. James gripped his skull in his hands. “Shit.”

"You see the truth. You tell them." The man lifted one of his decayed arms, pointing a skeleton finger at James. “Tell them all.”

James shook his head, stepping around the displaced spirit to keep room between them. Being clairvoyant and clairaudient also made him vulnerable to a sort of metaphysical connection. He had learned quickly to never let them touch him. In the three months since his abilities fully surfaced, James had encountered only a hand full of ghosts after Carrie Beth. He never got use to the ghastly apparitions. Some of them looked like normal people, but others appeared as if they had just clawed their ways from their graves. Mac assured him it was a work in progress, but James felt frustrated at his fledgling attempts at control. With Uncle Caleb’s help he was trying to learn to block them, take charge of what took place in his head. Joshua had given him special crystals to wear that acted like a ghost force field, but James had taken the pouch off back in the tent.

"You see the truth. You tell them."

“Get out of my way, and out of my head.” Vapor Guy didn’t get that James wasn’t interested in being his personal messenger. He flickered, reappearing once more to block James’s path. James couldn’t stop the whimper that escaped. The experiences were more painful now that he was trying to stop them, but until James got a grip, avoiding the dead was his first priority.


JT’s voice was clearer, closer. He was coming back. “Spirit,” James managed to get the word out past the blinding pain, but doubted it held any volume.

“JT, hold up,” Max called.

James lifted his head, blinking to see his brother running toward him, Max right on his heels.

“Jimmy?” JT reached him first, gripping his arm. “Are you alright? What’s wrong?”

“This better not be your sick sense of humor,” Max said. “You’ll need a travois to get off this freaking mountain.”

James hoped the look he gave Max communicated what he was thinking. He pulled in a breath, fighting to clear his head. “Dead guy… right behind you.”

“What? Where?” Max turned, panning his flashlight to scan the trail and tree-line behind them.

“A spirit’s trying to communicate with you?” JT demanded.

“Yahtzee.” James used one of their father’s favorite terms. Ghost Guy was still staring at him, his mouth moving silently. James guessed the thing had been worm food for a very long time. Grandpa Mac had a theory; the longer spirits stayed on the physical plane after death the more human skills they lost. Communication was shot, along with things like empathy and a conscience. It wasn’t an ideal combination. “He’s not very good at it.”

“You’re not supposed to talk to them until you can protect yourself,” JT said. “Remember you’re not ready for the center ring.”

James groaned at his brother’s reference to Mac’s metaphor. Their pseudo grandfather had compared James’s interactions with spirits to that of a lion tamer. At the moment, James didn’t have the chair and whip to keep the ghosts in line, let alone make them perform the way he wanted. He was on kitten level, having nothing to keep the wild beasts from banging him around like a tiny cat toy.

“I’m guessing he didn’t pull him up on the ghost chat line, J,” Max said, still searching the area.

“Where are the crystals Joshua gave you?” JT asked. “You’re supposed to keep them on like our pendants.”

“I left them in the tent,” James said. His brother’s grip tightened and he knew JT was holding back on the reprimand. James knew it was a stupid move on his part, but it was embarrassing to explain the medicine bag. The silver dragon was cool; a bunch of hocus pocus crystals were not. He only wore it when he thought he had to.

“Is it gone?” Max flashed him a look.

“No.” They couldn’t be so lucky. “He’s still behind you.”

“Tell it to go away,” JT said. “To go toward the light.”

“Great idea, JT, because angry spirits are such people pleasers.” James should have never let his brother and Max talk him into the all night Ghost Whisperer marathon. It made his stupid ability look like a cake walk. The air grew colder around them. James could see their breath now. The ghost flickered and when it reappeared it was more solid and visible to Max and JT.

“That’s so wrong,” Max muttered. “Like Rob Zombie wrong.”

"Tell them."

“Tell them what?” James demanded, unable to hold his psychic shield any longer. With a heavy exhalation he let go. The pain in his head receded, overwhelming thoughts of anguish and despair swelling to take its place.

Wind picked up around them, dust and leaves lifting from the trail. Max grabbed his arm, prompting them to start moving. “Let’s go. Back to camp and Dad’s crystals.”

Camp sounded good to James. He was never taking the medicine bag off again. His new spirit buddy had different plans. James read its intentions just as it reached out to Max. “Watch out!”

"You must see. You will tell them."

The spirit knocked Max to the ground. It could not only reveal itself but manipulate physical energy. James, caught up in Max’s momentum, was nearly bowled over too. Only JT’s grip kept him standing. “I don’t understand what you want!”

“Leave him alone!” JT stepped in front of James. He was easily tossed to the side.

“Hey!” Max scrambled, taking JT’s place as shield in front of James. “Back off, Casper!”

James covered his ears as the spirit screamed. Another focused force slammed into him and Max, taking both of them to the ground in a tangled pile.

“Fuck!” Max swore.

James had the breath knocked out of him, but managed to roll out from under the older teen. JT was just making it to his feet to the right of them. James watched his brother pull something from the side of his pack. He recognized the camping spade their father had given JT, remembering how Dad had said the extra weight was worth the blade being solid iron. JT must have recalled the same speech on ghosts 101 because he came at them swinging the spade like a short bat.

“Get away from them!" He struck the spirit, and it momentarily disappeared in a flashing flicker.

JT was able to press his advantage now, holding the spade out in front of him. He turned to Max. "Run!”

Max manhandled James, shoving him in front of him toward the trail. “Go! Go!”

James didn’t have to be told twice. He took off into the darkness, his heart pounding loudly in his ears. He assumed the other two boys were right behind him, but hadn’t gotten far when Max’s voice brought him to a dead stop. “Come on, J. Move it!”

James swiveled around, finding Max only a few steps back, but realizing JT hadn’t moved. Their flashlights were scattered on the ground; showcasing him in a halo of light. His idiot brother was now the willing performer in the center ring, iron spade instead of a whip, prepared to take on James’s lion. “JT!”

It happened so quickly, nothing like how James had imagined when he read accounts of hunts in journals or listened intently to his father or one of his uncles recount some harrowing tale. JT was standing before them one moment, and in the next he was hurtling through the air. His brother cried out. James and Max began to run. There was a snapping of branches and then the dull thud as JT was thrown against a towering pine where he landed like a broken doll at its base.

“No!” Max yelled.

“JT!” The fear in James’s voice was unrecognizable. The burning strain in his throat the only concrete proof it was him calling out to his brother.

Max dropped to his knees beside JT as James skidded to a halt near his brother’s limp body. JT didn’t move when Max touched him. He was laying flat on his back, his face turned away from James. “Grab one of the flashlights,” Max ordered. James felt rooted in place, paralyzed by fear as he waited for his brother to sit up, give one of his lopsided grins to prove he was just fine. “Now, Jimmy!”

Max’s tone broke the spell. James forced himself to move. He ran to the closest lantern, scooped it up, and grabbed the spade from where his brother had dropped it during the spirit’s attack. James was going to have a very different kind of conversation with Ghost Guy when he showed his ugly face again.

“Is he alright?” He handed Max the light, kneeling on the other side of JT. “Max?”

“Give me a minute.”

James bit his lip as Max brought the light to JT’s face. Blood glistened dark and wet. It was coming quickly from somewhere on JT’s head and there was more streaming beneath his nose. A swath of red already coated JT’s face, running into his ear and down his neck to soak the collar of his t-shirt. “Max?!”

“He’s breathing.” Max placed his hand on JT’s neck, glancing up at James. “He’s got a pulse.”

“He’s bleeding!” The attempt at reassurance was wasted on James. “He’s unconscious!”

“It’s going to be okay, Jimmy.” Max pulled off his shirt and James almost let out a hysterical giggle thinking how Holly would hate that she missed the moment. “This is just like when Ben hit him with the horseshoe.”

“No. It’s not.” The heady scent of copper brought the memory in sudden focus for James. He was seven, maybe eight. It was Ben and Mom versus Uncle Sam and Dad. Dad pitched a ringer Ben was determined to imitate. He didn’t realize how close JT was standing behind him until the iron horseshoe connected with JT’s face. Ben hadn’t meant to hurt JT, felt horrible after. Max was right about there being lots of blood. It was true JT blacked out. But this was nothing like then. “Dad was there,” he said.

Max didn’t look at him as he tore his shirt into strips, but James caught the quick swallow, the way Max’s gaze quickly skirted the darkness around them. He was worried, scared. Max didn’t do scared. “Is that thing still around? Can you sense it?”

“I’m not sure.” James placed the camping spade close beside him, closed his eyes trying to concentrate. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do. Uncle Caleb had said he would learn to pick up on psychic trails, spikes of energy around him. It was how psychics knew when another telepath or supernatural entity was close by. James could sense Uncle Sam and Caleb when they were near, but his range sucked and he had not purposively made any other connections.

“That won’t be enough to protect us.” Max eyed the shovel. “We’ve got to do something else.”

“Like what? We don’t have salt or any other weapons.” James had left everything at the tent. They were going on a hike not an orchestrated hunt where The Knight gave them a checklist and then stood over their shoulders as they packed and prepared. He felt vulnerable in a way he had never experienced, worse than his first day of school and the time he wondered off from Uncle Caleb in Central Park.

“A spell.” Max reached down to his hiking boot, pulling a small blade from inside. “I should have thought of it sooner.”

“What kind of spell?” James knew Max was hesitant to use magic, unlike his sister who loved to dabble in the craft.

“A defensive one. I read about it in Dad’s journal.”

“You’re sure it will work?”

“You got a better idea?”


Max used the knife, scrambling to carve a large circle in the ground around the three of them before drawing several glyphs around the perimeter. He came back to the center kneeling once more by JT where he used the blade to make a smaller drawing. The Triad symbol.

“Why are you using that?” James asked, recognizing the three interlocking circles.

“It must amp up the power. Dad wrote that it was important.”


“Now we need blood.”

James gestured to his brother. “We have plenty.”

Our blood.”

“Great, this just keeps getting better.”

Max drew the blade across his hand first, letting the red drops drip in the center of the Triad circles. James offered his palm before Max could reach for it. He barely felt the sting, turning his hand over to let his blood mix with Max’s.

“Now JT.”

“No.” James grabbed Max’s wrist. “Use what’s already on the outside of his body.”

Max shook his head, licking his lips. “Then it’s not a sacrifice.”

James let him go, knowing Max wouldn’t willing put JT in more jeopardy. “Magic sucks.”

“Reserve judgment. Your buddy just showed back up.”

James flicked his gaze to the trail where the hiking horror had reappeared watching them. He was getting cold again, the hairs on his arms standing on end. “Hurry.”

“Carving on my best friend here.”

James chanced taking his eyes from the spirit, shifting his gaze to where Max was holding JT’s lax hand above the Triad symbol. James instinctively reached out and covered his brother’s cold fingers. JT’s blood splashed with theirs. The reaction was instantaneous.

The three interlocking circles flared to life. There was a soft hum. The larger circle Max had drawn around them began to pulse and glow. They were engulfed in a sudden silent explosion of light, fading away so that only the protection ring stood out like a silver force field.

“You okay?” Max asked.

James looked up, removing his hand from atop his brothers. Ghost boy was gone. He managed a shaky grin. “Magic kicks ass.”

“Reserve judgment.” Max gently placed JT’s hand on the ground, his face set in grim lines. “We’re only protected as long as we stay inside the circle.”

James looked at his brother. JT needed help now. It would be hours before any one at camp woke and realized they were gone. “We’re screwed.”


“Shit!” Dean lifted his right hand from the steering wheel, squeezing his fingers into a fist. A cool burning sensation starting from his silver band rocked through his body like a shock wave. He cut his eyes to the passenger seat where Sam was flexing his hand. “Did you just feel that?”

“Oh yeah.” Sam turned to him with a nod. “Loud and clear.”

Dean chanced a glance in the rearview mirror. Caleb was watching him. He looked like shit. They had been driving a couple of hours since meeting up and were quickly nearing the trail head in North Carolina. Dean had seen several signs directing them to an exit for parking. It couldn’t be a coincidence. “Damien?”

“That was a major disturbance in the Force, Luke.” Caleb leaned forward resting his arms on the back of the seat. “Like when we use The Triad power.”

“Only we haven’t used any magic.” Dean brought his eyes back to the winding road, tightening his grip on the wheel. They used Merlin’s gift sparingly and with the greatest respect, treating it sort of like a nuclear weapons system. “Demons?”

“Possibly.” Caleb rubbed his temple. “The vibe I got from the last vision was powerful, familiar even.”

“Great.” In their case a demon acquaintance was never a good thing. Dean was working hard to keep the focus he needed.

“If it’s Triad power you sensed, then how could a demon be involved?” Ben said.

Dean looked up again, Ben’s face barely visible in the darkened interior. Dean knew his oldest son was feeling guilty for encouraging the boys to go on the wilderness sojourn. He would have to set him straight when everyone was safe. The responsibility was misplaced, falling squarely on Dean’s shoulders. Sam spared him an answer by launching into Scholar’s mode.

“In theory a demon couldn’t. Only a complete Triad has access.” Sam turned in his seat so he could look at Ben. “This might not have anything to do with the Triad. Any powerful spell gives off an echo, a supernatural vibration that can be picked up by those sensitive to such things.”

“Deuce shouldn’t have picked up on anything non Triad related,” Caleb said. “Whatever the hell we just felt was related to us.”

“Maybe Max cast a spell? Asking for help?” Ben said. "He has a connection to all of you.”

Dean hadn’t considered Max using magic. To hear Josh tell it, crafting took intense study of chemistry and physics. Max wasn’t exactly into studying at the moment and had yet to embrace his witch heritage. “Doubtful.”

“Let’s hope not,” Sam said.

“Sammy?” Dean recognized the dark foreboding in his brother’s tone. He slowed the Impala preparing to take the exit they would need.

“If Max cast a spell with James and JT…” Sam let the postulation hang heavy between them.

“That wouldn’t do anything,” Caleb picked up. “They don’t even have their rings. Nothing is nowhere near official.”

Dean took the turn, not liking where their conversation was leading. He eased the Chevy into a vacant spot. There were only a few cars in the makeshift lot at the late hour. The church bus, a renovated school bus, stood out with its colorful paint job and large block lettering. It was a newer vehicle, but Dean couldn’t help to think of the hideous ratty van with the rainbow emblazoned on the side Pastor Jim had forced them to ride in on occasion.

“What are you guys talking about?” Ben was growing impatient. He was the first one out of the car, slamming his door behind him. “What does Max casting a spell and the boys having their rings have to do with JT being hurt?”

“Your uncle thinks that Max and your brothers might have accidentally tapped into some Triad power.” Dean got out, pocketing his keys. He went around to the trunk, waiting for Sam and Caleb. It was one more thing he hadn’t bothered to consider. Dean had been lulled by the long-running streak of good luck. “Right, Sammy?”

“In theory, it is a possibility.” Sam came around to the back to gather his weapons of choice as Dean grabbed the sawed off shot gun and extra salt rounds. “It would explain the demon Caleb sensed. The three of them would stand out like a psychic beacon.”

“You professors and your theories,” Caleb snapped. He picked up his pack, grabbing extra holy water. “Come on, Runt. They’re kids! They have no idea what they’re doing.”

“Neither did we the first time we used it,” Sam replied. He took three lanterns from the back, turning them on before handing one to Dean, the other to Caleb. “Look where that got us.”

“Used what?” Ben said. He was holding his medical bag in one hand, gun in the other.

“Triad mojo,” Dean said.

“But Uncle Sam said…” Ben broke off, glancing to the silver ring on his finger back to his father. “There has to be a complete Triad.”

“Yeah.” Dean slammed the trunk. Sometimes looking at Ben was like looking in a mirror, seeing a hodgepodge version to haunt him from the past. Ben’s green eyes narrowed and then widened as his sharp mind put the evidence together, drawing the correct conclusion. Dean wondered again at his father’s strength as Caleb and Sam continued to bicker, oblivious to the impending explosion.

“But we knew our place,” Caleb countered. He pointed a finger at Sam. “And we didn’t exactly use it. We were trapped by it.”

“Our positions weren’t official.” Sam propped his hands on his hips. “Mackland was The Triad at the time.”

“How could you?” Ben stepped around Sam to come face to face with his father. “They’re your family.”

“Let’s move out.” Dean shouldered his pack, brushing past his son to start for the trail. There wasn’t time to argue.

“They’re kids!” Ben followed after him. Caleb and Sam must have caught on that they had inadvertently let the cat out of the bag because they were suddenly quiet, keeping a safe distance between father and son.

“Now’s not the time, Ben.” He kept his voice soft, an even keel he remembered Jim using. Dean still felt hypocritical, remembering his own father brushing aside his concerns. He’d sworn to be different, took pride in the relationship he had with all three of his boys. Dean tried now to take comfort in the fact he wasn’t screaming at his son, reaming him a new one for questioning his decision.

“There is no good time to talk about making your sons targets for every supernatural crazy!”

“I’ve never forced them to hunt.” Dean cut his eyes to Ben. He was by Dean’s side, matching his stride. They rarely argued minus the typical stuff fathers and sons go at one another for during the teen years. There had been some late curfews, a case of sneaking a girl in when Ben thought he had the place to himself. The worst of it was an incident with a speeding ticket, some beer and a nickel bag of weed. It was a good thing the sheriff’s deputy was a hunter and made it all disappear. Dean still believed it was Logan’s stash, but Ben had taken the fall and accepted the punishment without much more than a grumble. “They had the same choice as you, Ace.”

“Hunting and being marked as the future Triad are two entirely different things,” Ben said. “God. I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. I’ve read the history. I know what happened to you three. You hated you didn’t know what Pastor Jim had planned, that you had this huge responsibility thrust upon you, a destiny you felt beholden to fulfill.”

Dean tossed a glower over his shoulder. Sam glanced away. He recognized his brother’s dramatic words. “Things aren’t as simple as they seem. It isn’t like picking a fantasy league team. The Guardian isn’t the only one in play.” The Lady of the Lake had her say. She visited Dean in dreams along with Guardians from the past. He assumed Pastor Jim had experienced the same thing. Then there was James’s psychic ability. The revelation wasn’t as much a surprise but a confirmation as such.

“So they helped.” Ben gestured a hand to include Sam and Caleb as conspirators. “I hope sharing blame eases all your consciences if my brother dies.”

“Hey!” Dean stopped. He reached out with his free hand, snatched Ben by the shirt front, and jerked his son to an abrupt halt. He gave him a hard shake. “Watch your mouth.”

“Deuce,” Caleb said.

“Stay out of this, Damien,” Dean growled. He turned his attention back to Ben. “JT is not going to die. We’re bringing them all home safe. Don’t ever say anything like that again. Do you understand me?”

Ben nodded. “Yes, Sir.”

Dean let him go. “As for them being the next Triad, they are our first choice, but we have a second string in place. I promise you when it’s time; it will come down to what they want.”

“What they want?” Ben ran a hand over his mouth. “Max wants to move to California and surf, JT wants to take pictures for Time and play for the Red Sox. Jimmy wants a freaking girlfriend or make that three or four girlfriends. But at the end of the day they all want to make you proud, Dad. That’s what we all want. Don’t fool yourself. There is no choice, never has been.”

“We’re done talking about this. Don’t say another word about it.” Dean didn’t want to see the truth. He only wanted his family safe. Memories of his father tugged at him. He reached out and poked his finger in Ben’s chest. “This is a hunt, not a debate. Get your head in the fucking game and keep it there.”

Ben blinked, but didn’t move as Dean turned to start hiking again. Dean heard the steps beside him, didn’t need to turn to know it was Sam by his side. “Dean?”

“There’s definitely something to be said for John Winchester’s parenting style after all. Huh, Sammy?”

“You’re nothing like Dad,” Sam said, quietly.

Dean caught Damien’s familiar voice floating from behind them as he tried to reassure Ben. The words were lost, but Dean didn’t need to hear them. He remembered Caleb’s speeches, having repeated them for Sam until he knew them by heart. For the first time in many years, it had Dean feeling every part his father’s son. He turned to Sam. He might not have willingly put his sons in danger, but he was guilty just the same. “Look where that got me.”

Onto Part 2


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